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GPS in the Courts

written by: •edited by: Lamar Stonecypher•updated: 9/21/2009

GPS is a powerful tool for locating people... even against their knowledge and consent. So, it should come of no surprise that there are numerous court cases involving GPS technology and who gets to use it, from governments playing at Big Brother to stalking cases. Here's an overview.

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    The (Lack of) Law

    As far as the US is concerned, what does the law say regarding GPS? As with most new technologies, very little—the federal legislation just hasn't been written up yet, as it's still an emerging and evolving issue. There are sporadic state laws regarding the use of GPS, some states requiring it for, say, level 2 sex offenders, or where GPS as a navigational aid may be placed on a windshield. However, the sheer lack of legislation has led to a sporadic array of court rulings, especially when it comes to police tracking by GPS:

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    Warrantless Police Tracking

    There are numerous uses of the GPS for uses of police tracking, from potentially tracking a former criminal's every move to making sure someone sticks with their restraining order. Similar cases stem all the way back to 1983, where secretive warrantless tracking (here with “bird dog trackers”, not GPS) was said to be OK—as long as police only tracked anything while it was on public, not private property. Rulings regarding the use of bird dog trackers and other pre-GPS tracking devices have largely been extended to GPS devices.

    The court verdicts have been a mixed bag on this, from entirely permissive to hostile. A recent 2009 case in Wisconsin ruled that the police can use GPS to track anyone, without probable cause, without a warrant, without consent, without anything at all. The logic used here was that GPS tracking was not any more invasive than normal police tracking, and did not constitute of a “search and seizure.” A similar case occurred in 2005 in New York, which was later more-or-less overturned in 2009. Another recent 2009 case in Massachusetts ruled that, while GPS tracking was perfectly acceptable on public property, the moment that the device strayed into private property, the police needed a warrant to continue tracking. The examples are numerous.

    The general trend in court cases seems to be one of approval for use of warrantless, secretive GPS tracking of criminals and suspects, as long as the device remains on public property and does not stray. However, the rulings are erratic enough that anything can really happen.

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    Tracking (ex) Criminals

    There are also many state laws requiring various types of criminal offenders to wear GPS tracking devices. Texas, for instance, requires domestic violence offenders to wear one; California requires the same for sex offenders, as well as do many other states. However, this has proven quite problematic due to the sheer expense of such programs, as well as questionable utility and legality. This has been struck down in Massachusetts as constituting “cruel and unusual punishment” after the actual punitive sentence.

    Many human right organizations, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union, are up at arms about such invasions of privacy and are suing right back. How this will turn out is anyone's guess.

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    "The GPS Made Me Do It!"

    GPS can be an incredible navigational guide when driving down unknown roads... but don't depend entirely on that soothing voice telling you where to go. A recent UK case demonstrated such subservience to GPS systems when it resulted in a man driving along an unpaved track alongside a cliff until he crashed into a fence, dangling over a 100 foot drop. As you might imagine, the “GPS made me do it” argument did not sway the judge from being found guilty on the charge of "driving without due care or attention". It's likely that this will be the precedent set internationally, so don't depend on your GPS that much.