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Another US court says police GPS tracking does need a warrant

May 13, 2009

The complex landscape of the US judicial system has thrown up a ruling on the police use of GPS tracking devices completely at odds with the recent ruling handed down by the appeals court in Wisconsin. The New York appeals court ruled 4-3 that police GPS tracking should require a warrant. Judge Lipmann’s words on the case, quoted by the New York Times,  are particularly interesting as it appears that he wa taking a long view of potential harm in making his decision. He said:

“One need only consider what the police may learn, practically effortlessly, from planting a single device. The whole of a person’s progress through the world, into both public and private spatial spheres, can be charted and recorded over lengthy periods possibly limited only by the need to change the transmitting unit’s batteries. Disclosed in the data retrieved from the transmitting unit, nearly instantaneously with the press of a button on the highly portable receiving unit, will be trips the indisputably private nature of which takes little imagination to conjure: trips to the psychiatrist, the plastic surgeon, the abortion clinic, the AIDS treatment center, the strip club, the criminal defense attorney, the by-the-hour motel, the union meeting, the mosque, synagogue or church, the gay bar and on and on. What the technology yields and records with breathtaking quality and quantity, is a highly detailed profile, not simply of where we go, but by easy inference, of our associations — political, religious, amicable and amorous, to name only a few — and of the pattern of our professional and avocational pursuits. When multiple GPS devices are utilized, even more precisely resolved inferences about our activities are possible. And, with GPS becoming an increasingly routine feature in cars and cell phones, it will be possible to tell from the technology with ever increasing precision who we are and are not with, when we are and are not with them, and what we do and do not carry on our persons — to mention just a few of the highly feasible empirical configurations.”

This long term thinking has to be applauded. Sometimes imagination is necessary in the law, and particularly when the issue is one of socio-technical changes. The technological determinism of ‘if it exists, then it must be used’ is a way of thinking that has to be challenged. The question now for the USA is if either of these case or others will find their way to the federal courts. Until then, US citizens and police do not really know where they stand and the constitutional questions remain open.

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