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Published: 6/13/2011

Is Big Brother watching?

Ohioans should have a reasonable expectation of privacy that includes where they go, when they go there, and whom they see. But under current state law, they often don't.

Ohio law enforcement officers may track your movements 24 hours a day, as long as they want -- and they don't need a reason. Does the right to privacy mean anything in a technological age?

The question arose after the Butler County Sheriff's Office attached a global positioning system device to the undercarriage of a vehicle to track the movements of its owner, a suspected drug dealer. On information obtained through the GPS device, the suspect was arrested, charged, and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

His lawyer argued unsuccessfully at trial and on appeal that police use of the tracking device was illegal. The case is before the Ohio Supreme Court, which is expected to rule soon.

GPS devices make it possible for one person to monitor the activities of large numbers of people hundreds of miles away. The response of the courts should be to broaden the definition of privacy to include a situation undreamed of by the writers of state and federal constitutions, rather than to limit freedom.

Courts in several states, including New York, Washington, Oregon, Delaware, and Massachusetts, have ruled that use of tracking devices for police surveillance without court supervision is unconstitutional.

But lower courts here have ruled that Ohioans give up their right to privacy whenever they leave their homes. Since anyone could follow you, they reason, then law enforcement can -- without cause and without oversight.

In the Ohio case, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the Ohio Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, and other groups argue that warrantless tracking violates both the First Amendment right to privacy and free association and the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

They note that while technology has increased the potential for abuse of privacy rights, it also makes obtaining warrants faster and easier than ever before. That's all the more reason to make court approval mandatory before an electronic tracking device is attached to a vehicle.

Ohioans who have done nothing wrong should not have to wonder whether Big Brother is watching.



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