Fighting Rights or Crime? Criminal Defense Lawyers Question Legality of GPS Tracking Devices

In the last decade, advancements in technology have helped authorities fight crimes. One of the most recent developments includes the use of GPS tracking devices in order to catch criminals.

Criminal Defense Lawyers

Tracking Success

Recently, a robbery spree in New York State led to hits on dozens of stores as well as the murder of one store clerk. For months, authorities only had blurry surveillance footage of a man in a hooded sweatshirt to go on.

In an attempt to catch the suspect, police placed a very small satellite-connected GPS tracker in a wad of bills in the register of a local store. Sure enough, the suspect stole the money, was tracked by police, and arrested shortly thereafter.

Following the arrest, Nassau County Police Chief noted that, “[The GPS technology] tools are part of our arsenal and that the use of such technology is used ‘as a matter of course’ in our investigations”.

It seems like the GPS-embedded cash (or other items like prescription pill bottles) simply replaces the exploding dye packs that bank tellers used to hand to robbers during a robbery. Outside of the building, the dye packs exploded, staining the money as well as the criminal.

Fighting Crime or Fighting for Rights?

However, the use of GPS technology is raising new questions in the legal community. Some legal experts believe that the use of these devices has the potential to be abused by law enforcement officers as they may “snoop on” criminals for reasons other than robbery. Some criminal defense lawyers are challenging these cases in court.

In 2012, United States Supreme Court provided law enforcement with some guidance. The court’s decision stopped short of holding that that a warrant was always required when police used these devices. But, the ruling did not address the issue of whether it was legal to pre-emptively embed GPS devices in objects that are likely to be stolen.

George Washington University constitutional law professor Jonathan Turley observes that, “This is the latest chapter in the challenge to the Fourth Amendment by new technology. There is always a concern that technology can outstrip existing constitutional law. Now it’s up to the courts to decide when police departments can use this technology to facilitate an arrest and prosecution”.

Courts generally have held that police are within their rights when they go after suspects that have stolen something containing a tracking device. For many years, police have caught car thieves using LoJack.

Monitoring in Moderation

However, some analysts believe that the use of GPS-embedded technology is different. For example, police could monitor the whereabouts of a suspect over a length of time in order to determine if a criminal is involved in other crimes.

As the use of GPS-embedded technology becomes more prominent in the quest to catch criminals, it is likely that an increased number of challenges will be raised in court. How judges will rule on evidence collected in this manner remains to be seen.

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