Nonprofit Sues for Info on Warrantless GPS Tracking of Vehicles

The Blue Water Bridge at the Port Huron–Sarnia Border Crossing that connects Michigan to Canada. (Donna Burton via Wikipedia)

WASHINGTON (CN) – The Electronic Frontier Foundation is suing the Department of Homeland Security for failing to respond to two Freedom of Information Act requests seeking documents about the agency’s warrantless installation of GPS tracking systems on vehicles at ports of entry.

The complaint – filed in federal court in Washington D.C. Tuesday – references a 2018 case, United States v. Ignjatov, in which agents in Michigan used tracking equipment without a warrant to monitor a truck, which was allegedly transporting drugs to California. Agents installed the device on the vehicle as it passed through a border crossing in Canada and later declared in court they had been authorized to do so – as long as the device was deactivated within 48 hours. 

The California District Court eventually ruled the use of the tracking systems in that case violated a 2012 Supreme Court decision in United States v. Jones, in which police tracked Antoine Jones for a month with a GPS system without a warrant and ended up arresting him for drug possession. 

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the use of the tracking system without a warrant violated Jones’ Fourth Amendment right to unreasonable search and seizure. 

“The court further found that the actions of the FBI and LAPD agents who requested the warrantless GPS tracking ‘create[d] a scenario of significant government misconduct,’” the complaint states. 

Matthew Allen, the assistant director for the domestic operations division of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said in the 2018 case that it was Homeland Security Investigations’ policy to “allow a customs officer to install a GPS tracking device on a vehicle at the border without a warrant or individualized suspicion.” 

The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s lawsuit seeks responses to the organization’s two requests for documents relating to these referenced policies. The foundation is a nonprofit digital privacy rights group. 

In November 2018, the group filed a Freedom of Information Act request for documents on ICE policies regarding GPS tracking, which the agency said only produced three pages all in violation of a FOIA exemption that would disclose “certain law enforcement sensitive information contained within the responsive records.” The Electronic Frontier Foundation filed an administrative appeal to this decision and has yet to receive a response, according to the complaint.

Another November 2018 FOIA request to Customs and Border Protection yielded similar results. The agency denied the nonprofit’s request for expedited processing of the documents and never responded, the complaint states.

Electronic Frontier Foundation staff attorney Saira Hussain said in a statement Tuesday that the public deserves to know when the searches were allowed to take place, if they are still allowed to take place and how they work, which is why the agency filed suit. 

“Once again, ICE and CBP prove themselves to be rogue agencies by conducting searches that violate the Fourth Amendment and ignore Supreme Court precedent,” Hussain said. “Let’s be clear: the Constitution still applies at the border.”

The Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

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