Rhode Island Legislature Votes to Ban Tracking Devices on Vehicles

The bill is meant to help victims in abusive relationships and those who are being stalked by making it a misdemeanor to covertly place GPS devices on a motor vehicle.

by Katherine Gregg, The Providence Journal, R.I. / April 14, 2016
Rhode Island Speaker Nicholas Mattiello Google+/Speaker Mattiello
Rhode Island Speaker Nicholas MattielloGoogle+/Speaker Mattiello

(TNS) -- House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello's bill to outlaw the furtive placement of electronic tracking devices on motor vehicles is up for a vote by the full House on Wednesday.

Backed by the RI Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the bill was one of dozens left in limbo by the abrupt - and messy end - of the 2015 legislative session. The 2016 version would make it a misdemeanor - punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and/or a year in prison - to furtively plant an electronic tracking device on a motor vehicle.

“As electronic surveillance becomes easier and more affordable, abusers are using this technology more and more to stalk their victims,” Deborah DeBare, executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence, told lawmakers at a House committee hearing on the bill earlier this year.

“Before abusers had access to location tracking devices like GPS, they often checked car odometers to measure mileage and monitor victims’ daily activities,'' she said. "In contrast, the GPS requires one contact with the car to install, and then can be monitored from anywhere with an internet connection.

"Victims will have no idea that they are being tracked until their abuser chooses to act on the information and show up to harass, attack or even murder them,'' said DeBare, citing 2012 national statistics indicating 76 percent of "intimate-partner'' murder victims were stalked by their killer before they were killed.

DeBare also presented the lawmakers with these 2010 statistics from the Centers for Disease Control: "1 out of 6 women and 1 out of 19 men have been victims of stalking at some point in their lives. In Rhode Island, there are approximately 58,000 women who have been stalking victims."

Added Mattiello, when his bill cleared the House a year ago: "Right now, there’s nothing to stop a perpetrator from hiding a device anywhere in a victim’s car to track it indefinitely. This legislation would outlaw this activity, providing greater legal protection to potential victims of domestic violence.”

Mattiello's device-tracking bill has exceptions for law enforcement, and for a parent or legal guardian who installs a concealed tracking device to monitor their child's driving habits, "unless the person utilizing the tracking device has an active restraining order or no contact order against them."

Another exception: a business could place a tracking device on vehicles owned or leased by the business, that are driven by its own employees.

House spokesman Larry Berman said the legislation was prompted by real-life cases, in Rhode Island, "where victims of domestic violence have had their abusers place a tracking device in or under a car..[so] they can sit home and watch every movement of a car on a laptop computer.

"Currently 11 states ban this use, and we would be the 12th. This is a good privacy issue that is supported by the Coalition Against Domestic Violence and the ACLU,'' Berman said.

©2016 The Providence Journal (Providence, R.I.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.