Secret GPS Tracking of Suspects, Without Warrants, OK'd By Courts

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In what one critic describes as a signpost of our “always-on, surveillance society,” police departments increasingly have been secretly using GPS, without seeking search warrants, to track the movements of uncharged suspects.

The satellite technology can be highly effective for this purpose: Although authorities are reluctant to discuss their investigative techniques, GPS has apparently resulted, for example, in the arrest of a convicted rapist in Virginia after a series of attacks on women in Fairfax County and Alexandria, the Washington Post reported. “After his arrest on Feb. 6, the string of assaults suddenly stopped.” None involved a rape, notes an NBC article.

A Fairfax police detective had placed the device on the suspect’s van, in a few seconds, while it was parked on the public street, the newspaper writes. It apparently helped them catch the suspect Feb. 6 as he was allegedly dragging a woman into a wooded area in Falls Church. He was not charged in any of the prior attacks.

Attorney Chris Leibig, who is representing the suspect, David Lee Foltz Jr., sought to have the GPS evidence thrown out at an Arlington County General District Court hearing last week. Because police tracked Foltz’ vehicle on private, as well as public, property, they needed a warrant, Leibig argued. The judge disagreed, and it is to be introduced into evidence at his trial in October.

“Across the country, police are using GPS devices to snare thieves, drug dealers, sexual predators and killers, often without a warrant or court order,” the newspaper writes. “Privacy advocates said tracking suspects electronically constitutes illegal search and seizure, violating Fourth Amendment rights of protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, and is another step toward George Orwell’s Big Brother society. Law enforcement officials, when they discuss the issue at all, said GPS is essentially the same as having an officer trail someone, just cheaper and more accurate.”

Usually, as in Foltz’s case, the Post says, judges have allowed evidence obtained via warrantless GPS surveillance to be used at trial.

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