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How the Supreme Court Ruling on Global Positioning Devices Impacts Police Investigations

By James Deater

Recently the United States Supreme Court ruled that the use of GPS tracking devices to track the whereabouts of a suspected criminal is considered a search. The results of this ruling now requires police to obtain search warrants and/or court orders in order to use these devices. This has had a major impact on those police agencies and investigative units who rely on GPS technology to track suspected criminals engaged in illegal activities. 

This decision is perplexing especially considering the movement of a “suspect” vehicle traveling on public roadways can be tracked by a police officer following the vehicle, without the need for a search warrant or court order. So, many ask, what is the difference? Why did the Supreme Court rule as they did? Admittedly, there were mistakes made in the case that ultimately led to the decision, but should this decision have gone as far as to determine that watching the movements of someone traveling on public roads constitutes a “search”?

Many times, these devices are placed on vehicles parked in public areas such as mall parking lots, street parking areas, etc. The devices are portable and self-powered and secured to the vehicle by simple magnets. Using these devices causes no damage to the vehicle, nor is there anything permanently attached.

With today’s shrinking budgets, police agencies can no longer afford to allow a surveillance team of 3-5 investigators to follow a suspect around for days on end. The GPS device acts as a force multiplier, with one simple device doing the work of 3-5 investigators, at a minimal cost. These devices have been responsible for solving major crimes such as murders, homeland security threats, drug distribution, etc.

The issue now, is that many states and local municipalities do not have laws or legislation in place that are in line with the recent Supreme Court ruling. Therefore, the devices are not being used at all, and the criminals know this. In fact, during a recent investigation, investigators in Maryland were told that cartels are moving more shipments on major roadways because they know it’s harder, if not impossible, in some areas for police to get the proper warrant or court order to utilize GPS devices.

What makes it hard for police to use these devices due to the ruling? In some states, if the police officer obtains a search warrant he/she must leave a copy of the warrant with the vehicle the device was placed on, therefore letting the suspect know. There are some warrants that allow “delayed” notification, but ultimately the suspect knows they were being tracked and if the case goes beyond that person to a higher level target, that case is now compromised. 

Remember, all the GPS tracking device does is show the movement of a suspect/suspect vehicle, it doesn’t do anything more – there’s no audio recording or video footage. 

Has the court’s decision gone too far? How much does this affect homeland security issues and major investigations in the future?

~ James Deater is a 23-year veteran of the Maryland State Police, 15 of which he spent in the Homeland Security and Intelligence Bureau where he investigated, supervised and managed long-term investigations. He investigated large-scale national and international drug trafficking organizations, homicides and gangs, most of which required the use of electronic surveillance devices and equipment. James has authored well over 75 wiretaps, co-authored an additional 25 and has been assigned as case manager on more than 20 additional cases where wiretaps were utilized. He has been deputized by the FBI, DEA, U.S. Customs (ICE) and the U.S. Marshals Service. He also regularly testifies as an expert witness in the fields of electronic surveillance, wiretaps and cell phone/smart phone counter-measures in State and Federal court systems. James has also taught classes in these fields to States Attorney’s offices, allied police departments, international police agencies and intelligence agencies.

Leischen Kranick is a Managing Editor at AMU Edge. She has 15 years of experience writing articles and producing podcasts on topics relevant to law enforcement, fire services, emergency management, private security, and national security.

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