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GPS Tracking Case Could Have Wide-Ranging Fallout

Controversial ruling may increase police workload and lead to safety risks.

Monday’s Supreme Court decision on how the use of GPS surveillance violated a person’s constitutional rights may lead to public safety and financial repercussions, according to experts.

The high court confirmed in U.S. v. Jones that the placement of a GPS device on a vehicle for long-term tracking without an extended warrant was illegal under the Fourth Amendment. But in the absence of legislation that regulates the use of GPS tracking, the narrow ruling may stunt law enforcement’s use of the technology and consequently increase personnel costs incurred during investigations.
Lt. Raymond E. Foster, a retired officer with the Los Angeles Police Department, said cases that call for using GPS tracking devices might now become too expensive for departments to handle, since the technology allowed officers to collect data remotely, instead of assigning multiple people to monitor a suspect.

“There’s going to be some cases where they go, ‘We don’t have enough for a warrant and we don’t want to put a team of eight to 10 people on this for the next 72 hours, so we’re not going to work this case,’” Foster said. “So yeah, that’ll happen. That’s just logical.”

Paul Wormeli, executive director emeritus at the Integrated Justice Information Systems (IJIS) Institute, agreed. Wormeli said the decision is going to wreak havoc on the efficiency of law enforcement personnel.

“They didn’t invade the car, they put a magnetic thing on the bottom of the car, in public,” Wormeli said, regarding the circumstances in U.S. v. Jones. “They could have done the same thing with manual surveillance, but do we want to spend our money having police putting on a 28-day tracking exercise in order to catch this drug dealer, or do we want to use technology?”

What’s not in question is that with a proper warrant, the use of GPS tracking by law enforcement officials is legal. But where Foster and Wormeli differ is on the ease of police to obtain warrants in situations where timeliness is paramount.

Wormeli believed that the Supreme Court’s decision will have a big impact on how police investigate kidnappings and similar incidents. He used the example of finding a kidnapper’s car at 2 a.m. and how it might be difficult to obtain a warrant to use GPS tracking at that hour. Wormeli argued that without it, the potential rescue of a victim may be put in peril.

Foster, however, disagreed. He said in the event of a kidnapping, police have on-call district attorneys and judges in order to easily obtain a telephonic search warrant. In addition, even if an officer wasn’t able to get in touch with a judge, Foster argued that the legal system would likely excuse the use of a GPS tracking device.

“The court is going to say, ‘The person that is kidnapped is more important than filling out the form [for the warrant], so you did the right thing,’” Foster said.

So will further confusion be the end result from the U.S. v. Jones outcome?

Foster said the questions the case raises are dealt with operationally all the time by local law enforcement. Foster predicted that police will adapt to more careful use of GPS tracking and move on.

Wormeli, however, thought GPS would now be “less usable” by police due to the hesitation and concern that evidence collected through GPS tracking potentially would be thrown out in court.

Because the Supreme Court’s decision was so narrow, Wormeli added, it contributes to an already confusing situation and emphasizes a need to deal with privacy and civil rights laws that are impacted by the availability of contemporary technology.

“We need to get beyond this kind of issue and come up with technology independence laws that sustain the protections of privacy and civil rights, but at the same time give police the tools they need,” Wormeli said.

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.