Since the creation of the United States criminal justice system, advancements in technology have helped authorities catch criminals. One of the most recent developments includes the use of GPS tracking devices.
Recently, a robbery spree in New York State led to hits on dozens of stores as well as the murder of one store clerk. For months, authorities only had blurry surveillance footage of a man in a hooded sweatshirt to go on.
In an attempt to catch the suspect, police placed a very small satellite-connected GPS tracker in a wad of bills in the register of a local store. Sure enough, the suspect stole the money, was tracked by police and arrested shortly thereafter.
Following the arrest, Nassau County Police Chief Steven Skrynecki noted that, “[The GPS technology] tools are part of our arsenal” and that the use of such technology is used “as a matter of course in our investigations.”
It seems like the GPS-embedded cash (or other items like prescription pill bottles) simply replaces the exploding dye packs that bank tellers used to hand to robbers during a robbery. Outside of the building, the dye packs exploded, staining the money as well as the robber.
However, the use of GPS technology is raising new questions in the legal community. Some legal experts believe that the use of these devices has the potential to be abused by law enforcement officers as they may “snoop on” criminals for reasons other than robbery. Some defense lawyers are challenging these cases in court.
The United States Supreme Court provided law enforcement with some guidance when it rendered a decision on the matter in 2012. The court’s decision stopped short of holding that a warrant was always required when police used these devices. But, the ruling did not address the issue of whether it was legal to pre-emptively embed GPS devices in objects that are likely to be stolen.
George Washington University constitutional law professor Jonathan Turley observes that, “This is the latest chapter in the challenge to the Fourth Amendment by new technology. There is always a concern technology can outstrip existing constitutional law. Now it’s up to the courts to decide when police departments can use this technology to facilitate an arrest and prosecution.”
Courts generally have held that police are within their rights when they go after suspects that have stolen something containing a tracking device. For many years, police have caught car thieves using LoJack.
However, some analysts believe that the use of GPS-embedded technology is different. For example, police could monitor the whereabouts of a suspect over a length of time in order to determine what other crimes the suspect may be involved with. Jay Stanley, a policy analyst with the American Civil Liberties Union believes that, “As a baseline, I don’t think people should be tracked with GPS without a warrant. If somebody steals an object and the police don’t arrest them for six months and just collect information about how they’re living their life, that could be problematic.”
As the use of GPS-embedded technology becomes more prominent in the quest to catch criminals, it is likely that an increased number of challenges will be raised in court. How judges will rule on evidence collected in this manner remains to be seen.