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.