By James Vicini
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Supreme Court is to rule on whether a 220-year-old amendment to the Constitution prevents police from using 21st century tracking technology to keep tabs on criminal suspects.
The court said on Monday it would decide whether police need a warrant to use a global positioning system device to track a suspect's movements in a case about privacy rights and new surveillance technology.
It agreed to hear an Obama administration appeal arguing that secretly attaching the tracking device to the suspect's vehicle to monitor his movements did not violate his constitutional privacy rights.
The justices will consider a precedent-setting ruling by an appeals court that the police must obtain a warrant to use the GPS device for an extended period of time to covertly follow a suspect.
Civil liberties groups have hailed that ruling for extending the protections against unreasonable searches under the Constitution's Fourth Amendment to modern tracking technologies.
The appeals court threw out the conviction and the life-in-prison sentence for Antoine Jones, a nightclub owner in Washington, D.C., for conspiracy to distribute cocaine.
Police put the GPS device on Jones' vehicle and tracked his movements for a month during their investigation. Evidence obtained as a result of using the GPS device played a key role in his conviction.
The appeals court said prolonged electronic monitoring of Jones' vehicle amounted to an unreasonable search.
The Obama administration urged the justices to decide the issue to resolve conflicting appeals court rulings on whether the police need a warrant to use GPS tracking technology on public streets.
Administration attorneys said the issue was critically important to law enforcement efforts throughout the nation.
GPS devices can be especially helpful in the early stages of an investigation as the police gather evidence, they said. Requiring a warrant could hurt the government's ability to investigate drug trafficking, terrorism and other crimes.
Stephen Leckar an attorney for Jones, opposed the appeal.
"The advent of satellite-based tracking technology has enabled the government to engage in 24-hour tracking of the movements of any private citizen for extended -- indeed unlimited -- periods of time," he told the Supreme Court.
The justices are expected to hear arguments in the case and issue a ruling in their upcoming term that begins in October.
The Supreme Court case is United States v. Antoine Jones, No. 10-1259.
(Reporting by James Vicini; Editing by Paul Simao)