Criminal Law

Someone Is Following You: Using GPS to Track People

It's all about you, all the time, with the ever-growing presence of technology in our daily lives. Changes aren't just about technology, either. The latest electronics may impact our legal rights. Data gleaned from global positioning systems (GPS) and use of GPS devices are behind a growing number of legal questions and court cases.

Answers aren't certain or settled when it comes to GPS and new technology and the law. Many are waiting to see how the US Supreme Court or lawmakers might respond. Find out how your GPS, phone or other mobile devices raise important Fourth Amendment and privacy issues, and how the law might weigh in.

Start with Fourth Amendment Basics

The Fourth Amendment gives us the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. The law respects your right to an expectation of privacy in certain places and situations, such as in your home. The law restricts how and when police can make a legal search and seizure. Search warrants are generally needed, and there are consequences when police use warrantless searches in the wrong way.

Electronic surveillance can be legal, and valid methods include wire taps, tracing and tracking people with radio transmitters. Commentators see new issues and ask questions on whether current law, based on old technology, can be applied to modern science.

For example, advances in techie gear provide new ways to interpret information. Both a police officer watching a suspect and GPS can tell when someone goes to a certain place However, the GPS can give more data, and new analysis methods yield new conclusions. Patterns and details are revealed that couldn't be seen before. Does a case of "too much information" add up to a Fourth Amendment violation? There's no clear answer, yet.

GPS, Criminal Cases and Recalculating

A basic question is whether or not the police can place a GPS unit on your car without a warrant and track you. "Yes" is the answer from many courts.

The decision in a leading US Supreme Court case was that a radio beeper attached to a suspect's car used to track travel over public streets without a search warrant was legal. Fourth Amendment rights weren't violated because a person doesn't have an expectation of privacy when using public streets, and police could get the same information by watching and following someone.

Sometimes, courts look at whether old law applies in the same way to new technology. In other cases, the technology doesn't matter. For example, some cases turn on whether someone's expectation of privacy was violated when police put a GPS unit on a car while parked in the person's driveway. The type of tracking unit might not matter.

The outcome in any case may hinge on its facts. Still, many courts have decided the law applies in the same way, whether GPS or old-school beepers are attached to car, again, without a search warrant.

Unanswered and Uncertain Legal Questions

There isn't a consensus on technology and your legal rights. Federal and state courts rule differently on these issues, and state and federal laws may give you different rights. People are taking their cases to the US Supreme Court as of Summer 2011.

It's also possible your state lawmakers or Congress will pass laws addressing privacy and technology issues, whether a situation involves a criminal or civil matter.

Keep watching for new issues: Could your traffic stop turn into something more serious, and how far could a police search go? Could police search your smart phone or laptop just because it's in your pocket or on the car seat?

Protecting Your Rights

Do turn to a lawyer when you have concerns about electronic surveillance. An attorney can help you understand your legal rights, whether or not there's a violation of your rights, and what you can do about it. For example, turning to the courts for a restraining order or an injunction may be an option to stop the surveillance.

Your lawyer can also help you understand how data could be used against you, such as GPS data used to show that you contacted someone or went to a certain place when an order of protection barred you from doing so.

New gear, new software, and maybe even some new law to make it all work.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Do courts in our state rule people don't have an expectation of privacy in their driveways?
  • Is there a limit on how much and the types of information police could gather from a GPS unit placed on someone's car?
  • How are search warrants phrased when police want to gather data that exists online, and not in a physical place such as my home or my computer's hard drive?
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