Privacy Law

Top NY Court Nixes GPS Tracking Unless a Search Warrant is Obtained

An apparent New York State Police practice of using GPS tracking devices on suspects’ vehicles for extended periods is a violation of their constitutional privacy rights unless a search warrant is obtained, according to a divided New York Court of Appeals ruling.

In its 4-3 ruling today, the state’s highest court overruled two lower courts and said state police should have obtained a warrant before placing a GPS device on Scott Weaver’s van for 65 days, reports the Associated Press. Weaver, who was convicted of burglarizing a store based in part on GPS data that placed him in its parking lot, will now get a new trial in his criminal case.

The state had argued that such high-tech surveillance is not appreciably different from standard visual surveillance methods, but the top court disagreed. “The massive invasion of privacy entailed by the prolonged use of the GPS device was inconsistent with even the slightest reasonable expectation of privacy,” writes Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman in the majority opinion.

Lawyers for both sides say no further appeal is planned. A state police spokesman says the agency will comply with the court’s ruling, but declined to say how many other GPS tracking devices might now be in use and when they will be removed.

A Wisconsin appeals court reached an opposing conclusion last week in what it termed a troubling case on the same issue, the Associated Press reports in another article. In its ruling that no search warrant is required before police may attach GPS devices to private vehicles, even if the owner is not a suspect, the District 4 Court of Appeals also called on state lawmakers to enact legislation protecting citizens against overly intrusive monitoring.

And in another case involving a similar issue, the top court in Massachusetts last week ruled that GPS ankle bracelets could be used on convicted sex offenders on probation, but not on those put on pretrial probation, reports the Boston Globe.

There is, however, a considerable loophole in the Massachusetts ruling, which was based on the court’s interpretation of a state statute. A judge still has the power to require pretrial GPS monitoring as a condition of allowing a sex offense suspect to be released on pretrial probation.

Updated at 3:34 p.m. to include information about Wisconsin appellate ruling.

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