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.
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.
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?