U.S. District Court Judge Susan K. Gauvey refused this week to issue a warrant to federal authorities who wanted to access the GPS information of a suspect. Law enforcement wanted the information so they could track down the suspect in a felony case, though they had made limited efforts to track him down prior to the request.
In her refusal, Gauvey said limiting the officers’ access to this information “does not frustrate or impede law enforcement’s important efforts, but rather places them within the Constitutional and statutory framework which balances citizens’ rights of privacy against government’s protection of society.”
Courts across the country are exploring cases similar to this one, discussing how police’s access to GPS data should be dealt with. When it comes to placing GPS units on vehicles, appellate courts in both California and Oregon have ruled that police do not need warrants for such tracking. A Washington state Court of Appeals ruled otherwise and the U.S. Supreme Court plans to take up this issue soon.
Police practices and policies have not been able to keep up with the quickly evolving technologies of the day. Because most smart phones now have GPS capabilities built in, it’s possible to track someone even without them making any calls. Phone companies are said to be able to tell you where their customers are within a 10 meter radius, something the cops would love to have unlimited access to.
Cell phones and similar technology has become a top tool in law enforcement investigations. However, the benefits of this technology as an investigative tool must be balanced with the Constitutional rights of the people. “This technology is going to cause more and more of these arguments,” says Douglas Ward of the Division of Public Safety Leadership in the Johns Hopkins University School of Education. “Like anything else, there can be abuses. Justice demands that we weigh that.”
In this specific case, police had the cell phone number of their target and with that information (and a warrant), they could have located the suspect using GPS data. However, they didn’t prove to the judge that the suspect (whose identity and crime were kept secret) posed any flight risk. As a matter of fact, they located and arrested him in the meantime, without the warrant.
Much of the argument in such cases arises about what sort of “expectation of privacy” a person can have in regards to their movements. Should the police have access to your future movements? This is a question that hasn’t arisen in decades past; only with the advent of GPS technology has the ability to track movements in real-time even been possible.
For now, it remains a gray area for law enforcement, where judges can really go either way depending on the facts of the case and evidence presented by law enforcement in pursuit of a warrant.