Warrantless GPS Tracking: Legal Or Not Legal?

May 28, 2009

gps satelliteDepends on the state, of course.


As the law currently stands, the court said police can mount GPS on cars to track people without violating their constitutional rights – even if the drivers aren’t suspects.

Officers do not need to get warrants beforehand because GPS tracking does not involve a search or a seizure, Judge Paul Lundsten wrote for the unanimous three-judge panel based in Madison.

That means “police are seemingly free to secretly track anyone’s public movements with a GPS device,” he wrote.

The above case reached the Court of Appeals after a man was tracked by GPS for five weeks before the Police retrieved the device and downloaded the information.  The geopositioning data was used to obtain a warrant to further a case that the man had been stalking a woman.

It was argued in the above case that the GPS tracking was an invasion of the suspect’s privacy because it ‘followed’ him into areas not in public view, like his garage. The court accepted the counter-argument, however, that the GPS data did not look into the garage but merely confirmed that he entered the garage, which clearly could have been learned from traditional, legal, and more costly visual surveillance.

In New York, however:

In its 4-3 ruling today, the state’s highest court overruled two lower courts and said state police should have obtained a warrant before placing a GPS device on Scott Weaver’s van for 65 days, reports the Associated Press. Weaver, who was convicted of burglarizing a store based in part on GPS data that placed him in its parking lot, will now get a new trial in his criminal case.

The state had argued that such high-tech surveillance is not appreciably different from standard visual surveillance methods, but the top court disagreed. “The massive invasion of privacy entailed by the prolonged use of the GPS device was inconsistent with even the slightest reasonable expectation of privacy,” writes Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman in the majority opinion.

Well I agree with the Wisconsin court’s strict interpretation that GPS tracking probably does not provide data or information that could not otherwise be obtained through more costly manned surveillance, the ease and simplicity GPS tracking provides definitely makes me wary of giving the police carte blanche and a green light, and I think this same wariness is reflected in the NY ruling, which, on the surface, seemed to ignore certain facts.