Wisconsin Allows Warrantless GPS Tracking of Cars

In a decision filed on Mar 7, 2009, the Wisconsin VI District Court of Appeals made a ruling that has interesting implications for GPS tracking’s place in society and law enforcement.  In the case in question, State of Wisconsin v. Michael A. Sveum, the defendant (Michael Sveum) was arguing that the GPS tracking device installed on his car by the police was in violation of his 4th Amendment right of protection from unreasonable searches and seizures.  The police claim that they did not violate Sveum’s 4th Amendment rights.

The crux of the issue here is summarized nicely by the court in their written decision, authored by Judge Paul Lundsten:

Michael Sveum challenges his aggravated stalking conviction. At Sveum’s jury trial, the prosecution presented detailed tracking information about the movements of Sveum’s car obtained from a Global Positioning System tracking device (GPS device) that police secretly attached to his car. Sveum argues that the police obtained this tracking information in violation of his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. The State responds that no Fourth Amendment search or seizure occurs when police attach a GPS device to the outside of a vehicle while it is in a place accessible to the public and then use that device to track the vehicle while it is in public view.  We agree with the State.

The court’s decision has some interesting implications.  What the court essentially did in ruling in favor of the state in this appeal is open up the public to warrantless GPS tracking of a suspects car, truck, or van.

This has caused a lot of buzz, with fear mongers taking up the call of state oppression and fears that their rights of privacy are being violated unduly.  I think a lot of this talk is not constructive and does little to actaully help protect citizen’s privacy from unreasonable searches and seizures.

When you sit down and think about it logically, the court’s decision makes a lot of sense.  GPS tracking is a lot like physical surveillance, except that you don’t have to spend tax payer’s money on sitting a person outside a suspects home for hours on end.  According to one news report, the GPS tracking for cars was used for 5 weeks to monitor Sveum’s activity. How much would it have cost to put a tail on a suspect day and night, 7 days a week, for five weeks?  A lot of money.

After the 5 weeks of tracking was up, the device was retrieved from the car and then processed by police.  The location information that they uncovered helped them get a warrant to search Sveum’s car and home, the resulting evidence discovered was enough for a jury to convict the defendant of aggravated stalking.

If you think about it, the information gathered from the GPS tracking device installed on the car was exactly the same as that that could be gathered from physical observation.  Cars travel in public places and can be easily view by authorities with a desire to do so.  Such tailing is not a violation of a person’s 4th Amendment right and so the court reasoned that the GPS tracking was permissible.

It also reasoned that since tailing a suspect can be done without a warrant (since their activity is within the public sphere) then the GPS tracking of a car can also be done without a warrant.

Now in the Sveum case there was a warrant that let the police use the GPS tracking device, but the language of the court’s ruling indicated that this warrant was unnecessary.  Again, the language of the court:

Sveum challenges the admission of GPS tracking information showing the movements of his car. He argues that the warrant authorizing police to place the GPS device on his car was overly broad. The State responds that the warrant was unnecessary because no Fourth Amendment search or seizure occurred. In reply, Sveum implicitly concedes that placing the GPS device on his car and using it to monitor public travel does not implicate the Fourth Amendment. He contends, however, that because the GPS device permitted the police to monitor the location of his car while it was in his garage and in his employer’s garage, places out of public view, all of the information obtained from the GPS device should have been suppressed. Because we agree with the State that no Fourth Amendment search or seizure occurred, we do not address Sveum’s warrant argument.

Clear as crystal – the police, at least in Wisconsin, do not need to have a search warrant to place a GPS tracking device on your car.  They can do it for any reason and for presumably any purpose – as long as their resources allow it.

If you want to read the full text of the court’s decision you can do so here: State v. Michael A. Sveum

Update: May 20, 2009

According to the New York Court of Appeals, police inside New York must have a warrant when when using GPS tracking on a suspects car.  This is directly opposite of what the Wisconsin court ruled just a few weeks ago.  This difference in ruling highlights some of the current issues with the use of new technology in ever expanding areas of life.  Readers old enough to remember the stir that wire tapping raised when it was first introduced will see some similarities between that and GPS tracking.  If you want to learn more about this case and their ruling,check out our post New York Requires Warrant To GPS Track Suspects

Do you think that there is something fundamentally wrong with the Wisconsin’s ability to freely use GPS tracking on individuals?  Why or why not?

One thought on “Wisconsin Allows Warrantless GPS Tracking of Cars”

  1. the “stir” of wiretapping was a legitmate argument. it’s abused more than ever since the patriot act. GPS tracking is under the same umbrella, fella 🙂

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