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GPS Goes to Court

In what is a first of a kind ruling in the nation, the Washington State Supreme Court declared Thursday that police may not attach a Global Positioning System tracker to a suspect’s car without getting a warrant. “Use of GPS…
February 13, 2004

In what is a first of a kind ruling in the nation, the Washington State Supreme Court declared Thursday that police may not attach a Global Positioning System tracker to a suspect’s car without getting a warrant.

“Use of GPS tracking devices is a particularly intrusive method of surveillance, making it possible to acquire an enormous amount of personal information about the citizen under circumstances where the individual is unaware that every single vehicle trip taken and the duration of every single stop may be recorded by the government,” Justice Barbara Madsen wrote in the unanimous decision.

A spokesperson for the Washington chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union compared the use of GPS trackers in law enforcement to “placing an invisible police officer in a person’s back seat.”

Meanwhile, USA Today has an article (not in the online edition) about the use of GPS tracker data as evidence in the Scott Peterson case. Apparently, the Modesto police used GPS trackers to monitor the suspect’s movements for four months before his arrest. Peterson’s defense attorney wants the evidence tossed out. One of their tactics is to question the motives of the experts who are defending the accuracy of such information, claiming that they are self-interested: “I assume you want the judge to rule that this evidence is admissible so you can sell more GPS receivers.” Here, the dispute centers less around the constitutionality of its deployment than on its reliability, resulting in a war of competing experts.

This is a fascinating example of the negotiation process by which a society – or in this case, the courts – adjusts to the potentials of a new technology. Whether it gets adopted or not depends on how it passes these various legal challenges.

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