Warrantless GPS Tracking by Police: Legal, or Illegal?

May 20, 2009

Among the many advances in automotive technology, GPS-based navigation systems are right up there with self-starters, auto air-conditioning, and iPod integration. Millions of hapless drivers now swear by their GPS instead of at their spouse/navigator.

But there's a sinister side to the satellite system too: small, inexpensive GPS transponders can be used to track people without their knowledge.

When it's done by ordinary citizens--especially if they're estranged husbands or boyfriends against whom orders of protection have been issued--it's called "GPS stalking". And it's almost always illegal.

Five-time All-Star outfielder Albert Belle may be the most notable perp nailed for satellite stalking, but hundreds of others have been tried and convicted since the new variation on classic stalking was first identified 10 years ago.

But what if it's done by the police? Should the police have to get a warrant to put a GPS transponder on your car, or is your location "public information" since anyone can see you drive past?

That's the crux of a confusing battle brewing among various courts across the country that have issued conflicting rulings.

On the one hand,  the New York State Court of Appeals has ruled that when state police placed a GPS transponder inside the bumper of a van owned by Scott Weaver of Watervliet in December 2005 and left it there for 65 days.

By doing so, decided the court, the state police had "violated a criminal suspect’s rights" under the constitution of New York state. Using a GPS tracking device without a warrant, ruled the court, was an illegal search.

But the four-judge majority also pointed out that the ruling applied solely within New York state, since the US Supreme Court has not ruled whether using GPS in criminal investigations constitutes a search as addressed under the Fourth Amendment.

On the other hand, the issue hasn't been addressed by most federal courts, which led a court in Wisconsin to issue an opposite ruling. There, the court ruled that police may mount GPS transponders on cars and track citizens' movements without violating their state constitutional rights.

Going even further, police may do so even if those drivers are not suspects in any criminal case. Their reasoning? GPS tracking does not constitute either search or seizure, so no search warrant is needed (although in this case, the police had obtained a warrant).

In fact, wrote Judge Paul Lundsten in the unanimous ruling, the information from the GPS device "only gave police information that could have been obtained through visual surveillance".

In an age where Google Earth satellite images inadvertently reveals pictures of nude people, issues around permissible legal use of new technology are bound to crop up regularly.

But we're curious what you think. Should police have to get a warrant to mount a GPS device on a known drug dealer's car?

How about on your car?

Toyota Prius navigation screen

Toyota Prius navigation screen

[SOURCES: The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, via Spectrum Online]

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