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Few topics get me fired up as much as GPS tracking does.

For those of you who don’t know what that is, a GPS tracking device allows you to attach a device to a car, or any other type of vehicle, and track the movements of an individual driving it. Effectively, you can stick a device on a car and sit at your computer and track a person’s every move as they use that car.

You probably think that a private investigator would love the idea of GPS tracking.

Not me.

While there are legitimate reasons to use GPS devices, I think they are widely misused, illegally in a lot of cases, including by some fellow private investigators.

Why does this get me so fired up?

First, I think it’s a clear invasion of your privacy. Just imagine some crazy stalker putting a GPS device on your daughter’s vehicle. That vision alone makes me crazy.

But what gets me more fired up is rogue investigators, who somehow feel that they are above the law. People who should know better.

“We can put a device on any car, anytime, anywhere.”

A little over a year ago, I was contacted by a client regarding a situation in Virginia in which a concerned family wanted to place a GPS device in the vehicle of an elderly woman. The woman had Alzheimer’s and they wanted to keep track of her. It’s a totally reasonable request and one that I imagine many families dealing with similar circumstances consider.

I spoke to one local private investigator, who came recommended from another investigator in DC. In part, I wanted to see if he was capable of doing this, but also to learn what the applicable laws were in Virginia. He told me “we can put a device on any car, anytime, anywhere.”

I was flabbergasted.

I am no expert in GPS tracking, but it’s widely understood that you can only put a GPS tracking device if you share ownership of the vehicle. For example, if you are the titled owner of the vehicle.

The truth of the matter is that there is no cut-and-dried answer regarding GPS tracking, especially with non-law enforcement individuals. The law has not kept up with technology.

But any car, anytime, anywhere? This was about a month or two after a landmark 2012 Supreme Court ruling that warrantless GPS tracking was unconstitutional.

So I asked him about the Supreme Court ruling.

His response was: “It said nothing about private investigators. It only had to do with law enforcement. Until there is a specific law that states that private investigators can’t do it, I am doing it.”

I was shocked. So, it’s an unreasonable expectation of privacy for police to do it to catch criminals, but it’s not for a private citizen? And you need a specific law to stop you?

I never used him. And I told the investigator who referred him about my conversation. He’s never used him either.

You can’t contract your way out of the law

In October 2013, another ruling came out. A federal appeals court ruled that police must obtain a warrant prior to using a GPS device to track a vehicle.

One private investigator commented, “As long as my [clients] sign their legal and binding contract, I need not worrie (sic) about the court and their [probable cause] warrant requirement…”

Turns out that they are not the only ones either.

One reporter found that two separate investigators he approached in California expressed no immediate concern about adhering to the state’s GPS tracking law, even though it violates California law.

First off, you can’t contract your way out of the law. I don’t care what “binding contract” your client has signed.

Secondly, it’s true that investigators don’t need probable cause, but does anyone in their right mind not think that this does not constitute a reasonable expectation of privacy?

I even heard about an investigator who exclusively uses GPS devices and never does any type of “normal surveillance,” like staking out a person. Not only is it lazy, unethical, and mostly likely illegal in some (if not all) cases, it’s pretty much the lowest form of investigation I can think of.

In summary

As the law stands right now, there are perfectly legal and legitimate uses of GPS devices. As noted above, it’s a widely accepted practice that you can put a GPS device on a vehicle that you own. Some states, however, have banned the practice of using GPS devices in any situation. I suspect more will follow.

If you are going to use a GPS tracking device, I would strongly consider contacting legal counsel to get an opinion on the matter. Don’t rely on this article, some guy trying to sell you a GPS device, or anyone else, for that matter.

The future of GPS devices

In a few short years, GPS devices have gone from clunky expensive devices to being cheap, easy to use, and even easier to install.

Here is what I expect will eventually happen.

Some person, possibly a private investigator, will attach a GPS device to a vehicle; then, something will happen to that person who was being tracked and a federal law will be drafted that makes it illegal to use GPS trackers in most, if not all, situations.

I’ll give it four years (24 months was added just to get it through Congress).

Any takers on that bet?

Extra Reading:
Supreme Court Rules GPS Tracking Unconstitutional
Private Snoops Follow The GPS Trail, But Is It Legal?

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23 replies
  1. Bobbi
    Bobbi says:

    My company is in Texas and although GPS is allowed on client owned cars with “owner consent”, I read and interpreted the GPS warrantless law concerning police as if also applying also to investigators. Honestly if police must obtain a warrant why would a private citzen have any greater right to install GPS over law enforcement.
    So …To be safe I never install or offer any GPS tracking.
    Although, Many companies do offer GPS packages, in Texas I choose not to do this, however, if a part owner of a car and my client wants tracking I tell them if your a owner of the car go get gos and install gps yourself. I won’t do it. No law stops a vehicle owner from installing GPS on a vehicle they own but it gets a bit tricky if … A court unknown order is in place ..as to temporary a or perm property division which allows one owner full possession over the other owner. This is why I opt out of GPS entirely. It would take only one case where a spouse had a temp order of full custody and control of the vehicle …and a pi company installed a GPS device with out his or her consent and suddenly the have committed a felony. It could be argued that a marriage that was not final would make one spouse or the client a legal owner but …that would in my opinion, still violate a court ordered vehicle property possession for the other spouse.

    If my clients have gps or get GPS and want to track their “owned vehicles” great, if we lose them in traffic it always helps as back up but we rely on our field pis to follow and to track the subject to where they go.

    We just don’t want to be the first test case concerning the GPS law and I’m actually surprised this law has not been challenged against a pi or pi company already as the pis are running rampart using GPS trackers in Texas.

    My advise is to err on the side of caution and don’t jeopardize your clients case by using questionable GPS monitoring as a judge could and just may throw out your evidence and make a case law as his interpretation of gps monitoring.

  2. Wayne Miles
    Wayne Miles says:

    Re: GPS use in Florida. (Private Investigators)

    Currently, (July, 2015) using a GPS in Florida is legal. There are no current laws that prevent this. A new law will go in effect Oct 1st, 2015 that will make it illegal for PI’s to use these devices in some cases.

    Our agency has used GPS on many cases. We have even spoken to the Florida State Attorneys Office and they have said they will not prosecute any GPS cases used by individuals or PI’s.

    We have had cases go to court and not had any problems. In one case, the judge did not want to accept GPS data only out of his personal feelings about them. He even said in court that the use was legal.

    Our agency ONLY uses these devices if we know that the client has a good reason to do so. Such as proving that a spouse is working and that he can pay child support. Using a GPS for this reason is very cost effective for the single mom who has to prove her EX is not telling the truth in court. (She could not afford to pay for traditional surveillance to do this.)

    On the other hand, if a client wants us to follow his girlfriend when he is out of town, we will normally tell him to take her out to a nice place for dinner and have an honest talk with her, as we are not opposed to turning down cases.

    GPS use has a valid purpose and is an important tool for investigators.

  3. George Baken
    George Baken says:

    It’s a kind of shameful thing done by the investigators who install tracking device in their victim’s car this action was illegal. It may harm safety and privacy of that particular person. Before installing GPS tracing device on car they must have to take permission of authorized government.

  4. lori
    lori says:

    If the used car dealership put the GPS tracker on, my question is,can other people, who are not associated with the dealer ship, pick up on the tracker and know where I am at?

  5. Mick Meaney
    Mick Meaney says:

    I am a PI in the United Kingdom and have just discovered your site. I am hooked already. Brian I am loathe to disagree with you on my first post, but here goes:

    The UK’s Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and the Data Protection Act protect the citizen’s personal data from prying eyes. However, GPS tracking is legal.

    At the outset of any surveillance job I ask myself what am I trying to achieve.
    Answer: knowing what the subject is doing during a particular time frame.
    I have already decided I am going to covertly observe his activities. I am going to violate his privacy. Yes, that is what any surveillance is.
    Options: I can try to follow him/her in my car. He nips through a set of lights as they change to red. I get held up. Day over!
    Or I can speed up and try to squeeze through the lights on red. Then I endanger other road users. Maybe cause a crash. Probably get my driving licence taken off me. (The UK is the traffic camera capital of the World!)

    Those scenarios will be familiar to any PI, anywhere.
    However, if I have fitted a tracker to the outside of a car, I will not lose the subject for long. It is just a device to keep me in the game. I will not risk an accident or losing my driving licence. A tracker is simply a safer and more reliable adjunct to continuing a surveillance.
    It is not a substitute for actual eyes-on. Clearly, at some point a series of compromising photographs will be needed as evidence. That is when I will be really violating his privacy. I wonder why is that part of surveillance acceptable and trackers not?

    Trackers are not “cheating”. They are less obtrusive and less intrusive than physically spying on someone’s house, taking pictures with a long lens.
    If someone was following my daughter around and taking pictures of her, I would feel more violated than if they had fitted a tracker to her car. Especially because they would be close enough to grab her.

    Let’s not kid ourselves, ALL surveillance is an invasion of someone’s privacy to some degree. Surveillance of any kind is not a pretty thing. We convince ourselves that it is OK because it is legal. It is sneaky. It’s what we do.
    A significant part of our job would be impossible without our preparedness to intrude on other people’s lives. Even if they are not aware of that intrusion.
    I would like to think that PIs would only act in a noble cause. Sadly, we all know that it is not so. We often work for people motivated by money, jealousy or vindictiveness.
    As principled PI’s we need to be ethical about on whom we spy, on why we are spying and who we are spying for. How we spy must always remain within the Law.
    Just think of your tracker as you think of your camera or your car. It is just a piece of essential kit that makes your job safer and more effective. It is not listening in to a private conversation inside someone’s home. It just tells you where a motor car is.

    • Brian Willingham
      Brian Willingham says:

      Thanks for stopping by Mick. I guess we will agree to disagree. In my eyes, taking pictures of someone in a public place, or following someone in a public place is not a invasion of privacy. Putting a GPS tracker on someone’s car and literally being able to follow that person wherever they go is not. To me, there is a huge distinction. It really doesn’t matter if it makes your job easier or not.

      • Wayne Miles
        Wayne Miles says:

        There is no difference in following someone using a GPS or a vehicle, or walking, or using a taxi… Use of a GPS is only a method. Its a toll for following them that is efficient and cost effective.

        As a PI, if you feel surveillance is warranted, then you should be able to use any method to do it. After all, you are licensed to provide these services, and ethics is a big part of what we do.

        If you ban the use of GPS, then what else is next? Ban vehicles? What if we run along side the car? Would that be legal?

    • mke
      mke says:

      Excellent points Mick! Very well said. Using a gps tracker would certainly minimize the risks, especially the safety factor, while performing one man surveillance. But unfortunately in Canada we are not allowed to use them. The further away we surveil our target the more chance we lose them which results in less video evidence, a short day = less pay… we follow to close, we get burned, = less pay etc.. at the end of the day, it’s all “stocking” as some would suggest, but we call it surveilling with a licence.

  6. patrick
    patrick says:

    I am a private investigator in new England and focus mainly on insurance fraud. Saying that, a lot of the individuals abusing the system have been coached and are partially trained in counter surveillance. Putting a gps on one of these specific individuals would make my life MUCH easier and make mobile surveillance much easier. Try following someone around Boston proper for twenty minutes and not get made its tough.

    Great article and thank you for the information.

  7. Charles Sidney Blount
    Charles Sidney Blount says:

    Even though I have never used GPS tracking devise on surveillance cases yet…only following my suspect via automobile with camera by my side, I have thought of using it if need be but I don’t want to be incriminated by using it and the possibility of losing my license. After reading up on the do’s and don’ts, in the said State of Maryland…seems somewhat twilight. Example: putting the devise in the car either it the glove compartment or under the seats of the car etc., without the persons knowledge maybe considered breaking and entry. However, placing the devise outside of the car and underneath it’s body would be contrary to installing it inside and not considered breaking the law. If the spouse, owner /co-owner, of the car(s) needs to know what the situation at hand is as regard to what the other is doing…. is not an infraction. Nonetheless, I will read more and render a decision on whether to use it or not. Once I seek an attorney’s advise.

  8. Jim White
    Jim White says:

    Brian – if a spouse is the leaseholder on a car, and asks a P.I. to use a GPS to conduct surveillance on that car, do you consider that to be fair game (obviously, only in states where this is not explicitly outlawed).

    Also, just for the sake of discussion – let’s assume GPS tracking devices were perfectly legal across the nation. Would you still consider the practice of using them to be “lazy” or just good business?

    Food for thought,

    Jim

    • Brian Willingham
      Brian Willingham says:

      It’s generally accepted that if you are given permission by the legal owner of the vehicle to put a GPS tracker on a car, it’s OK. But I would run it by legal counsel.

      As for your question, if it were legal across the nation, I can see a number of applications where it could be used, so I wouldn’t necessary call it good business or “lazy” investigation. It certainly not as good as the real thing; doing actual surveillance.

  9. Mike
    Mike says:

    I am a cop in MA and have used GPS. I think a lot of of people confuse court decisions like this. This court decision only applies to the government, i.e. Police.

    A private person can use GPS to track whatever. I am not saying it is right or wrong, but the 4th Amendment only applies to the government searching or seizing, not a private person.

    That doesn’t mean there isn’t state or local laws prohibiting private GPS monitoring, or that there aren’t laws being broken (especially where the device is attached…driveway versus public street for instance), or that it is unethical, or whatever.

    • Brian Willingham
      Brian Willingham says:

      I don’t think there is any confusion at all. While you are right that the Supreme Court decision was specifically related to law enforcement, any reasonable person and any court, would consider putting a GPS device on any car an invasion of privacy.

      I think working with the state of mind “if there are no laws broken” it’s OK, is a very slippery slope.

      If there isn’t a case out there right now against a private investigator for using a GPS device, I am certain there will be. Either way, I am not risking my license or my reputation on it.

  10. Willy Batista
    Willy Batista says:

    GPS tracking would be great tool for a private investigator, if it is a law to not use them, we have to abide by it even if it might help the industry. Great post Brian and great website.

  11. Brian Frasier
    Brian Frasier says:

    I know of 1 major retailer that conducts external theft investigations that use GPS trackers to monitor the movements of the theft suspects traveling to stores then to businesses purchasing the stolen goods through the back door.

  12. Hal Humphreys
    Hal Humphreys says:

    Brian,

    Spot on.

    Had a conversation yesterday with a guy who, when I mentioned that it was illegal to put a GPS tracker on a car that he didn’t own, replied, “That’s just semantics.”

    What the …?

    H

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