Legality of GPS Trackers

November 3rd, 2015 by Attorney Dan Carman

Lexington GPS Surveillance

The Global Positioning System (GPS) has its roots in the 1970s, when it started out as a fairly obscure military technology. Its use expanded in 1988, when the Magellan NAV 1000 became the first civilian GPS device on the market. Since then, many of us have come to depend on this space-based navigation method to provide location and time data. In fact, other governments are developing their own systems similar to GPS, including Russia’s GLONASS, China’s Compass, Europe’s Galileo, and Japan’s Quasi-Zenith Satellite System.

Advances in technology now allow a tracking device to be placed on anything that uses GPS, to find out where it is at all times. The location is displayed against a map backdrop, and the data can be either transmitted immediately from the tracker or stored within the tracker for retrieval at a later time. Given their surveillance capabilities, GPS tracking units have become a popular option for monitoring suspects and recidivists alike. The legal implications have been mixed.

Commonly known as “Amanda’s Law,” Kentucky legislation enacted in 2010 allows judges to order GPS monitoring of offenders who commit certain serious violations of domestic violence protective orders. The law also makes it a felony to take the device off or tamper with it. However, many counties have been lax in instituting the law, citing technological issues and funding setbacks.

For example, the cell phone coverage needed to operate a GPS tracking system varies wildly through the state.

In 2012, the Supreme Court tossed out the life sentence of a District of Columbia drug dealer who was the subject of a warrantless, 28-day GPS surveillance. The majority opinion in that case ruled that warrantless GPS tracking was unconstitutional, stating that the government’s installation of a GPS device on a target’s vehicle, and its use of that device to monitor the vehicle’s movements, constituted a search. The court declined, however, to determine whether the search was reasonable or unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Later that year, a federal judge ruled that 150 pounds of marijuana was inadmissible evidence in a trial on a charge of conspiracy to distribute marijuana in Kentucky because investigators acted illegally when they placed a GPS tracking device on the defendant’s truck without a warrant. In 2013, a federal appeals court ruled that police must obtain a warrant prior to using a GPS device to track a vehicle. And in March of this year, the Supreme Court faced a question similar to one it had considered in 2012, related to a twice-convicted sex offender who had to wear a GPS monitor at all times. The court again ruled that putting a GPS tracker on a person or their car counts as a search protected by the Fourth Amendment.

While GPS has many practical purposes for the average person, the legal boundaries of that use when it comes to law enforcement are not clear.

What if a tracker is deliberately left on for an extended time to see what other crimes a suspect might be involved in? How can police be sure who is operating a GPS-tracked car? What about innocent people who have the misfortune of unwittingly possessing something implanted with a GPS device?

If you have concerns about electronic surveillance, discuss it with one of the attorneys at the Lexington, KY-based Carman Law Firm. We can help you understand your legal rights, whether or not they have been violated, and what you can do about it. As criminal defense attorneys with years of experience, we offer thorough, experienced representation. Call today at (859) 685-1055 or fill out this online contact form to find out how we can help you.