GPS Tracking Without a Warrant is Legal, Judge Rules

gps tracking legalLaw enforcement agents do not need to obtain a warrant before placing a secret GPS tracking device on your vehicle, says a  Missouri federal judge, who just ruled the FBI did not need a warrant to secretly attach a GPS tracking device to a government employee’s car to track his public movements for two months.

The FBI suspected that Fred Robinson was a “no-show employee” at the St. Louis City Treasurer’s Office — alleging that he collected $175,000 in paychecks without ever actually going to work, reports the Post-Dispatch and Forbes Magazine. While the FBI was investigating Robinson for this and for stealing money from a charter school, agents snuck a GPS tracking device  onto the bottom of his Chevrolet Cavalier in January 2010 and used it to track his whereabouts for the next two months.

A court opinion notes that it would have taken “five or six agents” to do it without the GPS tracking device. The tracking device data allegedly proved that the employment time sheets Robinson submitted to the Treasury Office January through March were false.

Robinson was indicated in September on one count of wire fraud and seven counts of federal program theft. Robinson’s lawyer argued that the GPS tracking results should not be allowed for several reasons, including the agents’ failure to get a warrant and violations of his Constitutional rights.

But Magistrate Judge David Noce disagreed, finding that appellate courts have found use of the tracking devices legal. His ruling stated:

Here, installation of the GPS tracker device onto defendant Robinson’s Cavalier was not a ’search’ because defendant Robinson did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the exterior of his Cavalier. Agents installed the GPS tracker device onto defendant’s Cavalier based on a reasonable suspicion that he was being illegally paid as a ‘ghost’ employee on the payroll of the St. Louis City Treasurer’s Office.

Installation of the GPS tracker device was non-invasive; a magnetic component of the GPS tracker device allowed it to be affixed to the exterior of the Cavalier without the use of screws and without causing any damage to the exterior of the Cavalier. The GPS tracker device was installed when the Cavalier was on a public street near defendant’s residence. Installation of the GPS tracker device revealed no information to the agents other than the public location of the vehicle. Under these circumstances, installation of the GPS tracker device was not a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.

The Supreme Court is set to weigh in on the GPS tracking issue later this year, when it will begin hearing arguments in a case  The New York Times recently dubbed “the most important Fourth Amendment case in a decade.” The court’s ruling in US v Jones will have a far-reaching impact on society, and on law enforcement and warrantless GPS tracking practices.