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Supreme Court gets it right; Decision maintains some personal space as new technology chips away at privacy

It restores a little faith in government institutions when one of them, even as ideologically split as it is, can come to the correct conclusion and do so unanimously. The fact that the conclusion was as obvious as the wording of the Fourth Amendment doesn't diminish the fact that the entire U.S. Supreme Court got it right.

The issue was the surreptitious, high-tech tracking that allowed law enforcement officers to pin charges on a suspected drug kingpin, Antoine Jones, owner of a Washington, D.C., nightclub. Law enforcement officers secretly hid a GPS tracking unit on his car, without a valid court order. First an appeals court, then the Supreme Court ruled that officers violated Jones' Fourth Amendment rights.

The decision comes as a relief as rapidly advancing technology erodes Americans' privacy. What the nine justices said, in effect, is that technology can inappropriately invade personal space as much as individuals can. Justice Antonin Scalia, for example, concluded that "The government physically occupied private property for the purpose of obtaining information. We have no doubt that such a physical intrusion would have been considered a 'search' within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment when it was adopted."

This is not a defense of drug kingpins. Police might well have legally tracked Jones' movements had they correctly placed the device after obtaining a court order -- the same kind of warrant that allows police to enter someone's home and conduct a search.

In fact, police did have a warrant, but it required them to install the GPS device within 10 days while Jones' Jeep was in Washington. Instead, they did it after after 11 days and when the vehicle was in Maryland.

Police should have available to them all the technology they can muster to prevent and solve crimes but, as always, they need to apply that technology within the boundaries of the Constitution's Bill of Rights. That hasn't changed in more than 200 years and, what is more, it's not hard to follow. With probable cause, most judges will provide warrants as needed.

But that protection -- that need for judicial oversight -- has only become more urgent as technology allows ever-easier intrusions into Americans' privacy. Had the court ruled otherwise, police plausibly would have been authorized to track anyone at any time for any reason.

What is more, evolving technologies will offer more opportunities for law enforcement to tread where the Constitution does not allow. With this ruling, the court has drawn a line that reaffirms the Fourth Amendment's proscription against unreasonable search and seizure. Without it, that line might have become so blurred as to fundamentally change any American's expectation of privacy.