If you were one of the people scared out of your mind that some states like Wisconsin allow warrantless GPS tracking of cars then you can breath a sigh of relief in knowing that not all the courts in our nation agree. New York, in a recent court decision, ruled that police in the state must have a warrant when placing a GPS tracking device on a suspects car – joining Washington and Oregon who already have rulings in places ensuring this.
The New York court differed from the Wisconsin one in one major way – the New York court seemed to think that GPS tracking was in fact different from physical surveillance or other technological forms of tracking (like a radio frequency emitter). The court wrote:
Here, we are not presented with the use of a mere beeper to facilitate visual surveillance during a single trip. GPS is a vastly different and exponentially more sophisticated and powerful technology that is easily and cheaply deployed and has virtually unlimited and remarkably precise tracking capability. […] Constant, relentless tracking of anything is now not merely possible but entirely practicable …. GPS is not a mere enhancement of human sensory capacity, it facilitates a new technological perception of the world in which the situation of any object may be followed and exhaustively recorded over … a practically unlimited period. The potential for a similar capture of information or “seeing” by law enforcement would require, at a minimum, millions of additional police officers and cameras on every street lamp.
The majority opinion of the court is trying to make a distinction between the information gathered from physical surveillance of technologically assisted surveillance (the beeper from the 1983 Wisconsin case used as precedent in both this case the more recent Wisconsin case) and that made possible by a GPS tracking device. The main thrust seems to be that in order to gather similar information on an individual you would need “millions of additional police.”
The court then goes on to discuss the privacy issues involved in GPS tracking cases:
One need only consider what the police may learn, practically effortlessly, from planting a single device. The whole of a person’s progress through the world, into both public and private spatial spheres, can be charted and recorded over lengthy periods …. Disclosed in the data retrieved from the transmitting unit, nearly instantaneously with the press of a button on the highly portable receiving unit, will be trips the indisputably private nature of which takes little imagination to conjure: trips to the psychiatrist, the plastic surgeon, the abortion clinic, the AIDS treatment center, the strip club, the criminal defense attorney, the by-the-hour motel, the union meeting, the mosque, synagogue or church, the gay bar and on and on. What the technology yields and records … is a highly detailed profile … of where we go, … of our associations — political, religious, amicable and amorous, to name only a few — and of the pattern of our professional and avocational pursuits. When multiple GPS devices are utilized, even more precisely resolved inferences about our activities are possible. And … it will be possible to tell from … who we are and are not with, when we are and are not with them, and what we do and do not carry on our persons — to mention just a few of the highly feasible empirical configurations.
This judgment reads to me that the court made its decision to deny warrantless GPS tracking because it would give the police a lot of information about a suspects activities and would be much, much cheaper than putting a “tail” on the suspect.
Personally, I can’t seem to make myself agree with the courts rulings. I am not a lawyer nor am I trained in the law, but it seems to me like the information gather by a GPS tracking device attached to a car could be gather by a physical tail on a suspect – but just at a much greater cost.
A police officer could tell if a person drove their car to a mosque, or a church, or a bar, or a friends house, or to work, or to a soccer game, or to their child’s recital. All this information would be easily accessible to any person capable of seeing and all of it would be occurring in public space – where people have no fundamental right to privacy.
Granted, GPS tracking a cell phone could provide police with a much larger amount of information that would track a person’s movement’s within completely private places – such as a doctors office, or a church building, or a private club – so perhaps the court’s decision is taking these into consideration as well.
However, I am concerned with the way their ruling could affect the police’s ability to easily and precisely put a tail on a suspects vehicle. GPS tracking for cars will only really track the movements of an individual’s car in public places – something that seems very reasonable for the police to be able to track with GPS. It is much more cost effective and gives them an opportunity to utilize their skilled officers in other tasks.
In the end, whether or not GPS tracking for cars will require a warrant or not is going to be decided in cases like this all over the country by Appellate courts who are going to differ on what the nature of GPS tracking is and what that means for a person’s 4th Amendment rights.