GPS Tracking Laws Explained

gavelSince the advent of GPS tracking, many debates over its legality have come into play. Is GPS tracking a violation of the Fourth Amendment, that protects citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures? Does GPS tracking exceed a citizen’s reasonable expectation of privacy? As more court cases rely on GPS tracking evidence as part of the investigation, these questions of legality become more and more relevant. Courts continually set precedents that determine GPS tracking legality to build a comprehensive ruling on the subject. In short, is GPS legal? Lawmakers say, yes, as long as certain protocol is followed.

Note: GPS tracking is subject to State law. Please consult your local State laws before using a GPS tracker.

When is OK to track a vehicle using a covert GPS tracker?

  • As long as the car you’re tracking is visible to the public
  • As long as you could obtain the same location information by physically trailing the car
  • As long as you put the GPS in the car while outside of the curtilage of a person’s property

When is it NOT OK to track a vehicle using a covert GPS tracker?

  • When you have to physically hardwire the GPS into the vehicle
  • When you have to break into the car, or open the car to install the tracker
  • Where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy. i.e., inside of a garage or home

The Case Study: Using GPS Tracking Information as Evidence
Let’s start off this explanation of GPS’ legality with a case study. Michael A. Sveum of Wisconsin was convicted of stalking Jamie Johnson in 1996 and was promptly sent to jail. He stalked Ms. Johnson the entire time he was in jail with the help of his sister, and he continued to stalk her when he was released from jail. When Ms. Johnson reported this to the police, police went to his home, walked up his driveway, and placed a GPS tracker on the outside of his car. After following him for some time, the police retrieved the GPS tracker, and found out that Sveum was indeed stalking Ms. Johnson. Armed with the tracking information, police were able to obtain a search warrant and they eventually gathered enough evidence to re-convict Sveum. Sveum immediately appealed the ruling, stating that the police didn’t have the right to place a GPS tracking on his car to begin with because it directly violated the Fourt Amendment.

What the Court of Appeals concluded was that with this case, there was no direct violation of the Fourth Amendment. The police were completely within their own jurisdiction when they trailed the GPS tracker on the car because the car was visible to the general public. This decision was based on two previous cases: U.S. v. Knotts and U.S. v. Karo. What Knotts concluded was that GPS tracking does not violate the Fourth Amendment if the GPS is put on a car in public view. What Karo concluded was that it is legal to track a car and obtain information that could be obtained by manually trailing the car. It makes no difference whether it’s a GPS device tracking the car in these types of places or the police themselves.

Remember, it’s very important to check local and State laws before using a covert GPS tracker to gather location information since these laws vary by state.

About the author  ⁄ BrickHouse Security

BrickHouse Security is the industry's premier supplier of security and surveillance solutions. As a recognized authority in GPS tracking, hidden cameras, cell phone/PC monitoring, video surveillance and counter surveillance, we help our customers use technology to get the clarity they need. We proudly serve consumers, businesses of all sizes and the law enforcement community. When you need to know, BrickHouse has the answers.

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  • JNM

    Yes, with the number of children that go missing each year, every parent should use a personal GPS tracking device, but you dont have to be a parent to need or benefit from owning one of these devices. Motorcycles, skis, musical instruments, laptop computers, purses & luggage, even the family dog: EVERYBODY has SOMETHING they want to protect!!! When considering the purchase of a tracking device, do your homework because not all GPS systems are alike. Aside from features such as Geofencing, speed-alerts and so on, the one thing you really need to look into is the COST. Most GPS devices I've looked into have HIDDEN costs such as monthly/annual renewal fees or charge you per track ontop of the purchase price. I ended up buying a system called “The GPS Guadian” at http://www.thegpsguardian.com . Not only did I get the device for FREE by purchasing 3 years of service up front, but I got the 4th and 5th year of service for FREE as well.

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