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Law enforcement's uses of GPS technology

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Overview Edit

The military and private sector are not alone in their interests and reliance on GPS technology. Federal and state governments have also incorporated it into many of their domestic activities. Examples include tracking stranded motorists and predicting natural disasters such as earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, etc. Such tracking allows for more effective emergency relief to victims.[1] Increasingly, law enforcement relies on and finds new uses for GPS technology to assist in monitoring and gathering evidence.[2] For example, sex offenders are outfitted with ankle monitors to track their movements 24 hours a day.

Most new cellphones include GPS capabilities.[3] As a result, federal prosecutors have been known to get information from cellular phone service providers that allows real time tracking of the locations of customers’ cellphones.[4] In one case, information obtained from a cellphone's GPS helped prove that a key suspect had been within a mile of a murder scene. In another case, a Mexican drug-cartel truck was tracked. The truck was carrying over two tons of cocaine.[5] Title I of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 regulates the interception of wire, oral, and electronic communications. It does not regulate the use of GPS technology affixed to vehicles.

While there are many substantial benefits to the use of GPS technology, some have voiced concerns. Many of these concerns arise from the fact that law enforcement has used GPS technology without first obtaining a warrant to either attach the device or to monitor the suspect after the device has been attached.

Some have argued that the warrantless use of GPS technology has the potential of interfering with individual privacy, protected by the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.[6]

Some legal scholars assert that a warrant ensures that the police have probable cause to believe that criminal activity is taking place or is imminent, thus preventing unwarranted intrusion into a person's freedom and private life.[7]

Others contend that GPS tracking is analogous to law enforcement conducting surveillance with its own eyes or with surveillance cameras or radio transmitting beepers. Therefore, some courts and legal scholars believe a warrant is unnecessary and the Fourth Amendment does not apply.[8]

References Edit

  1. The Global Positioning System, Public Safety & Disaster Relief (full-text).
  2. To illustrate the government's growing use of GPS technology in the area of criminal investigation, consider that "[i]n response to a Freedom of Information Act request, police in one Virginia locality reported that they used GPS devices in nearly 160 cases from 2005 to 2007." Id.
  3. Renee McDonald Hutchins, "Tied Up in Knotts? GPS Technology and the Fourth Amendment," 55 U.C.L.A. L. Rev. 409, 419 (2007).
  4. Michael Isikoff, "The Snitch in Your Pocket," Newsweek (Feb/ 19, 2010) (full-text).
  5. Id.
  6. For example, in Lopez v. United States, 373 U.S. 427, 442 (1963) (full-text), Chief Justice Warren remarked:
    That the fantastic advances in the field of electronic communication constitute a great danger to the privacy of an individual; that indiscriminate use of such devices in law enforcement raises grave constitutional questions under the Fourth and Fifth Amendment; . . .
  7. See, e.g., Renee McDonald Hutchins, "Tied Up in Knotts? GPS Technology and the Fourth Amendment," 55 UCLA L. Rev. 409, 464-65 (2007); Adam Koppel, Note, "Warranting a Warrant: Fourth Amendment Concerns Raised by Law Enforcement's Warrantless Use of GPS and Cellular Tracking," 64 U. Miami L. Rev. 1061, 1089 (2010); United States v. Maynard, 615 F.3d 544, 564 (D.C. Cir. 2010) (full-text); State v. Weaver, 12 N.Y.3d 433, 909 N.E.2d 1195, 1201-02 (2009); Kip F. Wainscott, "Unwarranted Intrusion: GPS and the Fourth Amendment," ACSblog (May 19, 2009) (full-text).
  8. See, e.g., United States v. Pineda-Moreno, 591 F.3d 1212, 1214-16 (9th Cir. 2010) (full-text); Tarik N. Jallad, Recent Development, "Old Answers to New Questions: GPS Surveillance and the Unwarranted Need for Warrants," 11 N.C. J. L. & Tech. 351, 374-75 (Spr. 2010); Orin Kerr, "Does the Fourth Amendment Prohibit Warrantless GPS Surveillance?," The Volokh Conspiracy (Dec. 13, 2009) (full-text).

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