Is GPS Tracking by Police Legal in Virginia?

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Is GPS Tracking by Police Legal in Virginia?

It is no secret that technology has made keeping track of people much easier. GPS tracking is now built into cell phones, vehicles, and other electronics, which are all in addition to the normal GPS tracking devices. In Virginia, the sheer number of these devices available has led to some rather interesting questions concerning the legality of using them.

What is GPS?

Global Positioning Systems (GPS) are electronic devices that can be used to track the whereabouts of another individual. These devices store and transmit data that shows exactly where the device is located, allowing users to come up with driving directions and other information. While originally designed as an in-vehicle mapping device, GPS systems are now being used by police, businesses, private investigators, and individuals to monitor where a specific vehicle is located. There are individual GPS systems, as well as those that are built into cell phones and vehicles, and many of them are undetectable. One type of GPS device can also be attached directly to a vehicle without the driver even being aware of it, and this is raising serious questions about the legality of using them.

Current Laws

The main question surrounding GPS monitoring is whether it is a violation of Fourth Amendment rights for the police to use them without obtaining a warrant. The Fourth Amendment protects citizens from unreasonable search and seizure, depending on the expectation of privacy. These rights generally require warrants for searches occurring in an individual’s home and other areas that are deemed private. The problem is that lawmakers vary widely in their interpretations of the laws. The first state to bring this issue into focus was Wisconsin, where it was decided that police did not need a warrant to begin using a GPS tracking device. However, lawmakers in New York ruled that law enforcement had to obtain a warrant before the device could be used. Together, these two cases show the discrepancy and confusion caused by this debate.

Virginia was the next state to address GPS tracking laws, but the ruling only affected citizens, not police officers. According to Delegate Joe May, the proposed laws would make it a criminal offense for a person to install a GPS system on another person’s vehicle without prior consent. However, this same ruling also allowed for law enforcement agencies, DOC workers, parole officers, and those that own the title to a vehicle to use the devices without a warrant. Even with this ruling, the question is still up for debate when it comes to the police.

Supreme Court Rulings

The new technologies, and how they can be used has prompted the Supreme Court to make their own rulings on these issues. The short answer from one of the Supreme Court rulings is that the police do not need a warrant to attach a GPS unit to your vehicle. The reasoning behind this is due to the fact that the vehicle is used on public streets, where citizens have no reasonable expectation of privacy. However, in another case, US v. Jones, the court ruled that police were in violation of these rights when they entered a person’s private property to attach the GPS unit to the vehicle.

The different rulings handed down from the Supreme Court do very little to truly explain the laws as they apply to newer technologies. However, one area that is gaining attention is the use of GPS bullets. These bullets are GPS devices that are fired at a suspect’s vehicle. When the bullet is fired, it attaches itself to the vehicle in question, allowing officers to keep track of the vehicle, without resorting to dangerous police chases.

According to Jay Stanley, the Senior Policy Analyst for the ACLU, this use of warrantless GPS tracking is acceptable when police already have probable cause, such as the vehicle fleeing the scene of a crime or traffic stop. The reasoning behind this is that the fleeing suspect is considered an exigent circumstance, because the officer has probable cause, yet does not have time to secure a warrant.

Overall, the question of whether police can legally use GPS tracking without a warrant is still somewhat unanswered. The most recent legislature in Virginia explains that officers must obtain a search warrant prior to attaching a GPS device. Additionally, the device can only remain in place for 10 days. However, private citizens can still use these devices in certain cases, such as when they are the titled owner of the vehicle in question, or they are monitoring children under the age of 18.

For more information on technical surveillance and other investigative services offered, contact Prudential Associates, 877-279-6700.