In 1999, police in Washington State acted on a hunch and attached a GPS unit to a murder suspect’s car. Hoping that the suspect would lead them to the crime scene, the investigators monitored his activities and apprehended him when he returned to the place where he had buried his victim. While the Washington Supreme Court subsequently ruled that police must obtain a warrant in order to conduct GPS surveillance, most other courts have not followed suit.

Recently, GPS technology has become an increasingly important tool for law enforcement agencies throughout the United States. The ability to monitor the location of a suspect or convicted criminal by secretly attaching a GPS device to the individual’s vehicle has enhanced authorities’ ability to investigate offenses including automobile theft, homicide and drug trafficking. Proponents of GPS surveillance also argue that it is a cost-effective alternative to incarceration of offenders who require ongoing supervision.

The increasing use of GPS monitoring has received relatively little publicity, however, because law enforcement agencies are reluctant to publicize any information that would “help the bad guys.” They are also likely interested in deflecting attention from a tactic that critics have called an invasion of privacy. Some argue that such surveillance constitutes illegal search and seizure, or that it should require a warrant. In response, police argue that GPS tracking is merely the legal equivalent of physically following a suspicious vehicle.

The Supreme Court has not yet weighed in on the debate, and lower courts are split. The majority, including the Seventh Circuit, have declined to require a warrant. This developing body of precedent will determine whether law enforcement can retain easy access to a highly effective means of investigating criminal activity.

– Erica Youngstrom

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