Police Test New Methods of GPS Tracking, Leaving Questions of How Much Surveillance the Fourth Amendment Allows

At least two police departments are testing a new form of GPS technology that allows them to track suspects’ vehicles by launching a GPS “bullet” that attaches itself to a vehicle during a chase. Media reports have compared it to something out of a James Bond or Batman movie. If these devices become widespread among law enforcement, a court will eventually have to consider how they fit into a still-developing legal framework. The U.S. Supreme Court issued its first decision regarding GPS tracking in 2012, holding that police must obtain a warrant before attaching such a device to a parked vehicle.

The Iowa State Patrol and the police department of St. Petersburg, Florida are participating in a trial of Starchase, a device that uses compressed air to launch a small GPS device from the front of a patrol car towards a vehicle under pursuit. Ideally, the device sticks to the vehicle, enabling police to track it without a potentially dangerous high-speed chase. Recent court decisions regarding GPS tracking without warrants involve devices previously attached to a vehicle when the driver is not present, and which are used for surveillance lasting weeks or longer. The key difference between these cases and Starchase may be the latter’s intended use during police chases: police can claim exigent circumstances meriting warrantless use of a GPS tracker, used solely for the purpose of short-term tracking.

Police have utilized GPS devices to track vehicles during investigations for years, but the Supreme Court did not issue a ruling regarding the practice until 2012. In United States v. Jones, FBI agents and police officers attached a GPS tracker to a suspect’s Jeep while it was parked in a public lot. Cops had obtained a warrant to install a tracking device to be used solely within the District of Columbia for a ten-day period, however, the installation in question occurred in Maryland after the warrant had expired. Over a four-week period, the device transmitted data about the vehicle’s location and movements to agents, who then used that information to make a case for conspiracy to distribute cocaine. A unanimous Supreme Court ruled to overturn the conviction, but only five justices agreed that the installation of the GPS tracker without a warrant violated the defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights. The other four, writing concurrences, suggested that the long-term monitoring of the vehicle was the greater infringement on the driver’s expectation of privacy.

The Jones decision left open the question of whether long-term GPS monitoring requires a warrant. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals addressed this question in October 2013 in United States v. Katzin, ruling that it does require a warrant. The FBI and the Pennsylvania State Police attached a GPS device to a van as part of an investigation into a series of burglaries. Although police had previously found possible contraband in the van, they did not use that information to obtain a warrant for the GPS device or the ongoing monitoring. The Third Circuit overturned the conviction on Fourth Amendment grounds, and dismissed the state’s argument that the police acted in “good faith” before the issuance of the Jones decision.

A person facing charges for an alleged criminal offense should consult an experienced criminal defense attorney, who can help them understand their rights, guide them through the process, and work to ensure that police, prosecutors, and courts respect their Constitutional and procedural rights. Criminal defense attorney Michael J. Brown has represented defendants in west Texas defendants for over twenty years. Contact us today online or at (432) 687-5157 to schedule a confidential consultation to discuss your case.

More Blog Posts:

Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Affirms Finding that Police Lacked Probable Cause to Search Backyard Without Warrant, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, May 24, 2013
Appellate Court Limits Law Enforcement’s Ability to Search Computers Seized During Border Inspections, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, April 19, 2013
Devices that Track Cell Phone Signals Violate Fourth Amendment, Say Privacy Advocates, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, February 28, 2013

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