GPS Tracking and Privacy Rights – Can FBI Track Vehicles Without a Warrant

FBI gps tracking vehicle tracking devicesShould law enforcement agents be required to get a warrant before placing GPS tracking devices in a vehicle?

Overall the legal system has been divided on whether the police must obtain a warrant before placing a GPS tracking device on a vehicle. In the most recent case, the FBI says it can place GPS tracking devices in a person’s vehicle and that they do not need a warrant. The FBI sees GPS as an electronic version of physical surveillance used to gather information for an investigation.  But civil rights groups consider the GPS devices more intrusive.

There will no doubt be many more federal and state court rulings about the constitutionality of warrantless GPS monitoring. It is never easy to fit modern technology into the broad privacy principles that the drafters of the federal and state constitutions laid out.

In some cases, if someone is caught doing something illegal, and 1) the GPS tracking system information was used to convict him or her and 2) the GPS tracking system was placed by law enforcement without a warrant,  convictions are not possible or overturned. But in other cases, courts have upheld the use of evidence obtained by placing a GPS device on a suspect’s car without a warrant.

For example, here are some recent legal decisions effecting the privacy rights of all people living in the U.S.

January 2010

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that it’s permissible for law enforcement to attach GPS tracking devices to vehicles without search warrants.

August 2010
Giving privacy-rights advocates an important victory, a federal appeals court ruled that police conducted an illegal warrant-less search by planting a GPS tracking device in a drug-case suspect’s car and tracking him for a month. The ruling said that the police violated the suspect’s Fourth Amendment rights. The judge said, “planting a GPS tracking device and then following that person for several weeks conflicted with an individual’s reasonable expectations for privacy.”

November 2009
New York State’s highest court ruled in 2009 that tracking a person via the global positioning system (GPS) without a warrant violated his right to privacy.