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GPS trackers are remarkably small and easy to plant on cars. They allow police and other entities to watch citizens wherever they go.  (Source:
While their tactics may be illegal, police in Washington and elsewhere turn to GPS planting to catch crooks

It's the classic story -- a cop using unorthodox techniques, working outside the law to capture crooks.  However, this cop story has a twist -- some unsavory privacy implications that may make some citizens uncomfortable.

The controversy stems from a growing police tactic to plant GPS tracking units on suspects’ cars without warrants.  John Wesley Hall, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers states, "I've seen them in cases from New York City to small towns -- whoever can afford to get the equipment and plant it on a car.  And of course, it's easy to do. You can sneak up on a car and plant it at any time."

Privacy advocates are shocked.  They say that by monitoring the movements of people, many of which are likely innocent, police departments across the country are committing a Big Brother-esque invasion of privacy.  And one state Supreme Court is on their side.  The Washington State Supreme Court ruled that a warrant must be obtained to justify such invasions of privacy.

However, other state supreme courts -- including New York, Wisconsin and Maryland, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit in Chicago -- have declared that warrants are not needed.

Police praise the practice, saying it has helped them crack tough cases.  They point to cases such as the string of rapes in Fairfax, which were solved when a GPS tracker led cops to convicted rapist David Lee Foltz Jr.  Officer Shelley Broderick, a Fairfax police spokeswoman cautiously praised the device, stating, "We don't really want to give any info on how we use it as an investigative tool to help the bad guys.  It is an investigative tool for us, and it is a very new investigative tool."

They are not alone.  Many other departments have found success using the device to track suspected thieves, drug dealers, sexual predators and killers.  Privacy advocates say we're losing Constitutional protections for minimal gains, though.  They say the practice constitutes illegal search and seizure and thus violates the fourth amendment.  Police disagree, saying that the devices are just a high tech equivalent of a police tail which costs less and is more accurate.  Usually they're relatively quiet about the practice, though.

Cpl. Clinton Copeland, a Prince George's County police spokesman in Washington acknowledges the practice was used by his department.  He states, "But I don't think that's something [detectives] would be too happy to put out there like that.  They do have different techniques they like to use on suspects, but they don't really want people to know."

However, the devices are gaining attention as police use them in major cases, such New York methamphetamine tracking case or a Wisconsin burglary case.  The devices are gaining attention because suspects’ lawyers are challenging the processes' legality.  Freedom of Information Requests indicate many departments claiming not to use the devices, but many refusing to respond, as well.

Barry Steinhardt, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's technology and liberty program says that GPS monitoring is part of a nationwide trend towards "an always-on, surveillance society."

The debate over continuous monitoring, be it new facial scanning being deployed on highways, or GPS units planted by the police, is a tricky one.  As electronics find more and more presence in our lives, it becomes easier and easier for someone to watch your actions at all times. 

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Cell Phones
By 325hhee on 8/14/2008 11:34:41 AM , Rating: 2
I see no problem with placing a GPS on a suspect vehicle, by law there has to be a reason for any law enforcer to trace someone. Whether it's by physical man power or electronic.

Advocacy groups really gets under my skin every now and then, it's not like the Cops are throwing GPS on joe schmoe, and there's no point to trail joe average, unless he's up to something.

Now, if the Govt is activating GPS on cell phones without a warrant, ok, then there is a problem with that. That's going through many loop holes to get to. With the GPS, you have to have someone physically go up to the suspect vehicle, and plant the device. Where as cell phones, if, you can do it remotely, and that's abuse of the law, since it goes nationally. It can be done, and it has been done, that's how some terrorists were caught, but again, they warranted a reason to have their cell phone GPS activated. And yes they did need a warrant for that. That I'm ok with. But really, no need for a local gps tracking.

RE: Cell Phones
By Elementalism on 8/14/2008 11:58:24 AM , Rating: 2
Why is it ok to plant a gps tracking device on a car and use it but not on a cell phone? Both are relaying the same message about an objects travels.

RE: Cell Phones
By Jator on 8/14/2008 11:59:53 AM , Rating: 5
When people start getting speeding tickets because the GPS indicates you were doing 75 in a 55 mph zone, don't cry foul.

Yes, it sounds reasonable to track suspected sex predetors, drug trafficers, etc. But if it's deemed to be "permissable" to do this for those, it's only a matter of time before it would be expanded to misdemenours and other such issues. This sounds like a slippery slope to me.

RE: Cell Phones
By othercents on 8/14/2008 12:53:56 PM , Rating: 2
When people start getting speeding tickets because the GPS indicates you were doing 75 in a 55 mph zone, don't cry foul.

I would love to see this report. For 2 miles you were doing 75mph and just after that you did 30mph followed by going 120mph then only 2mph. How do you explain your erratic driving behavior?


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