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Massachusetts Police Can't Place GPS On Autos Without Warrant 194

Posted by Soulskill
from the good-news-suspects dept.
pickens writes "The EFF reports that the Supreme Court of Massachusetts has held in Commonwealth v. Connolly that police may not place GPS tracking devices on cars without first getting a warrant, reasoning that the installation of the GPS device was a seizure of the suspect's vehicle. Search and seizure is a legal procedure used in many civil law and common law legal systems whereby police or other authorities and their agents, who suspect that a crime has been committed, do a search of a person's property and confiscate any relevant evidence to the crime. According to the decision, 'when an electronic surveillance device is installed in a motor vehicle, be it a beeper, radio transmitter, or GPS device, the government's control and use of the defendant's vehicle to track its movements interferes with the defendant's interest in the vehicle notwithstanding that he maintains possession of it.' Although the case only protects drivers in Massachusetts, another recent state court case, People v. Weaver in the State of New York, also held that because modern GPS devices are far more powerful than beepers, police must get a warrant to use the trackers, even on cars and people traveling the public roads."
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Massachusetts Police Can't Place GPS On Autos Without Warrant

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  • What is very sad (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Moryath (553296) on Wednesday September 30, 2009 @08:39AM (#29592573)

    is that there had to be a case where the Police overstepped their authority, and did this without a warrant, before this question of law could be settled.

    That's a definite flaw in our legal system: someone has to be abused (at least) once before the courts can rule.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by sopssa (1498795) *

      It's only good that they need to get it. What's the problem anyway - if it's justified to put a GPS tracking device in the car, they get the warrant. This decreases the abuse from police where they would use those device's without a good reason.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        Actually, I would have thought that the Fourth Amendment makes it somewhat doubtful that this can be done to a U.S. citizen at all. It states that:

        The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

        The specificity requirement would

        • by DavidTC (10147)

          You can describe a place without stating the location or address.

          For example, if you think someone was the bank robber you're looking for, and hide the money, you can describe the place as 'the place the money is hidden'. That is what the warrant is trying to find.

          It's essentially the same as how they do normal search warrants...they don't have to specify, for example, which murder weapon they're going to be looking for and seize. They just say they're looking for anything connected with that specific mur

          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            by Vohar (1344259)

            Maybe this varies by state, but as someone who works in a 'related field' I can tell you this is wrong in several states, at least. Warrants are required to be very specific when it comes to which house is to be searched. I've seen cases where that meant a street address, and cases where that involved a detailed description of the house itself: Second house on x street from y street, with off-white paint and pale blue shutters.

            I saw an example like the one above result in a failed raid, because the house in

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Chelloveck (14643)

          I'm pretty sure that even when the Bill of Rights was written, courts would have considered a vehicle (say, a carriage or boat) to be a "place to be searched" for the purposes of issuing a warrant. Even if the vehicle is in motion, "Bob's carriage" or "the good ship Lollipop" describes a particular place to be searched.

          • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

            Well... given that roving wiretaps are so controversial in the Patriot Act, I'm not convinced of this. A lot of people seem to think otherwise!

            • Well... given that roving wiretaps are so controversial in the Patriot Act, I'm not convinced of this. A lot of people seem to think otherwise!

              You are joking, right?

              The wiretaps are roving, not the phones being tapped.

              The roving wiretaps are not affixed to any physical place at all. In no way, shape or form could one reasonably argue that the pay phone at the shopping mall and the phone in my house 50 miles away are the same place.

      • I think you misunderstood. The complaint is that placing tracking devices without a warrant couldn't be prohibited as unconstitutional until someone has such a tracking device placed and challenges the police's authority to have done it. The courts can't say that something is unconstitutional on their own, but can only decide on a case with someone claiming that something that was done to them (and never something that might be or will be done to them) is unconstitutional. The decision is good, but it's unf
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by mcgrew (92797) *

        What is very sad is that so many illiterates have logged into slashdot today. I've been ignoring it all day, damn it, but I've got the flu and I'm cranky. Are you in the second grade or something?

        This decreases the abuse from police where they would use those device's without a good reason.

        Soppsa (and the other illiterates here), meet Bob. [angryflower.com] Terry Pratchett also had fun with you bozos in Going Postal, which I'm about to do today. Please explain why you think that apostrophe belongs there? It's annoying as hel

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by j00r0m4nc3r (959816)
      Why is that sad? You expected the people who made the laws 100 years ago to predict the existence of a satellite-based global positioning system with modules small enough to be placed on a vehicle to track it anywhere on the planet? THOSE MORONS!
      • by Jurily (900488)

        Why is that sad? You expected the people who made the laws 100 years ago to predict the existence of a satellite-based global positioning system with modules small enough to be placed on a vehicle to track it anywhere on the planet? THOSE MORONS!

        Note how the judge had to classify that "seizure" to ban it. If you need a new law, why not write a new law?

        • by commodore64_love (1445365) on Wednesday September 30, 2009 @09:16AM (#29593047) Journal

          Judges are forced to do stuff like that, because the lazy legislators are not doing their job. As soon as this case hit the news, the legislators should have been passing laws or constitutional amendments that stated, "The People's movements shall not be tracked except when a warrant is issued by a judge."

          • by Verdatum (1257828)
            I agree with you that laws are preferable to bench legistation, but even if a law was instated, (unless I'm mistaken) the judge still would have to do the same thing, due to ex post facto issues.
          • It's more likely that the legislature would furiously work to circumvent judicial interference. Gotta be tough on crime!
          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            Why should we have laws for new shit that nobody's thought before.

            The government should be on a "DENY ALL, ALLOW FOO" type policy for ALL actions. If the government wants to do something "new" they should get permission before they do it. PERIOD.

            In this case, the police should have had a policy for GPS tracking devices in place BEFORE the first one was deployed. Strict guidelines on when, how, and why they are used.

            This is the problem with the shoot first, ask questions later mentality we tend to have in ou

          • by PitaBred (632671)
            And then their opponent would come out with ads saying that the candidate trying to protect our rights really just hates children, and wants to prevent the police from being able to track pedophiles.

            Politicians by and large don't stand up for what's right because if they did, they'd get voted out of office by the mouth-breathing, uninformed "think of the children!" twits that are unfortunately a majority of voters.
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by andymadigan (792996)
        It's sad that the police saw fit to abuse an area of the law that was ill-defined rather than following the logical procedure of getting a warrant.
        • by Rogerborg (306625)
          Just one of the many joys of living with a Constitution that sets limits on laws: laws are seen as being... advisory... until they are challenged and ultimately confirmed or struck on Constitutional grounds.
        • If the ruling went the other way it would be great, that the police saved time thier & courts getting warrants and spent more time stopping crime!
          I think GP was looking for a way for people to make the area of the law well defined instead of pushing it and finding out what happened (often letting criminals go free, if they were wrong)

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by x_MeRLiN_x (935994)

        You misunderstood the GP's post. He's expressing dismay that someone must overstep the mark, as ambiguous as it is, before proceedings can be brought and a judge can rule on whether the defendant acted unlawfully. What he's suggesting is that there ought to be a way for either the police, an independent body or perhaps an individual to identify ambiguous areas of law, that exist because of a changing world or otherwise, and seek clarification from a judge as to how the law should be interpreted.

        Whether this

        • So in other words, we need better QA for the "program" that is the US legal system. I'll agree with that.
        • by Kjella (173770)

          Isn't that exactly what declaratory judgment [wikipedia.org] is supposed to be?

          • by codegen (103601)
            Declaratory judgments require a case or controversy. An organization such as the EFF can't seek a declaratory judgement since they are not party to the controversy. What you are thinking of is an advisory opinion [wikipedia.org]. We have it it Canada, but most US courts are not allowed to issue advisory opinions.
        • Whether this is in fact impossible under the current system, or whether his proposal would be unworkable, I could not say.

          I believe that one must have "standing" in order to bring suit and without a real or at least expected infringement on oneself, one does not have standing and will be dismissed. I don't think anyone is going to try to claim, "I commit crimes, so sooner or later the cops might try to track me" and "I'm a law-abiding citizen, so sooner or later the cops might try to track me" isn't plausible enough, yet, in this society...

      • by Sloppy (14984)

        You expected the people who made the laws 100 years ago to predict the existence of a satellite-based global positioning system with modules small enough to be placed on a vehicle to track it anywhere on the planet?

        Read the post that you're replying to, troll. He expected the people who made the laws 200 years ago to know that governments sometimes enact laws that conflict with their constitution, and therefore there should be a way to challenge new laws before a specific victim exists.

    • "That's a definite flaw in our legal system: someone has to be abused (at least) once before the courts can rule."

      The judges are lazy! Sounds like living in legal Haskell...

    • Good point. I have often thought this myself. We all can probably think of laws we think are unconstitutional. It would be good to be able to challenge those laws before someone's rights are violated.
    • "That's a definite flaw in our legal system: someone has to be abused (at least) once before the courts can rule."

      Do you realize that is the same dynamic at work in our free-market economic system? People have to get repeatedly abused by the system (e.g. corporations) before adjustments are made to stop the abuse (usually in the form of kludges rather than real solutions, but that's another discussion). I'm not saying that's the way it should be, merely that this is the way it is. This is DEscriptive, th

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        Actually there are a lot of laws in place to protect citizens from abuse by corporations, but many people don't avail themselves of those laws (typically due to ignorance). For example I saw a story on local tv about a guy who purchased some vitamins for a "trail bottle" of only $2. But the company charged him the full $99 instead. Then they send him another bottle for another $99. And another. And another. He stopped the automatic shipment, but the company refused to refund the money for the other b

    • by Ogive17 (691899)
      I don't think it's a flaw that our system can adapt to new situations. Do you want to be the person who's locked away in a room writing new laws for millions of things that "could" happen?

      Not that the system doesn't have it's flaws, but adaptability isn't one of them.
      • by causality (777677)

        I don't think it's a flaw that our system can adapt to new situations. Do you want to be the person who's locked away in a room writing new laws for millions of things that "could" happen? Not that the system doesn't have it's flaws, but adaptability isn't one of them.

        I'm sorry but that's just silly. Do you really need a "person who's locked away in a room writing new laws for millions of things" before you can decide that hey, maybe we don't want the police to plant electronic devices on your property to track your every location at all times without a good reason, and that maybe getting a warrant is the standard way to show that there is a good reason? Seriously, how much foresight does that take?

        For that matter ... Who has ever read the 4th Amendment and thinks t

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Runaway1956 (1322357)

      Great, common sense wins for once. If the cops really need to track someone, they can still do so. It only takes a short period of time to ask a judge to sign a warrant. If a judge isn't willing to sign the warrant, then the cops have no case, simple as that. Lazy cops who would rather rely on technology instead of "police work" have no business being a cop.

      • Great, common sense wins for once. If the cops really need to track someone, they can still do so. It only takes a short period of time to ask a judge to sign a warrant. If a judge isn't willing to sign the warrant, then the cops have no case, simple as that. Lazy cops who would rather rely on technology instead of "police work" have no business being a cop.

        And most of the time, judges will grant retroactive warrants. If time is an issue, you can plant the tracking device when you find that you have the opportunity to get to the suspect's car at 10:00 a.m., then go to the court after lunch to get the warrant for it. The ease of getting a warrant is what bothers me the most about doing anything without one.

    • by hey! (33014)

      Err... That's the way the courts act. They don't make laws, they figure out how existing laws apply to new classes of situations.

      The basic problem is that there is no right of information privacy in US law. In fact, the common law right of privacy didn't exist until Louis Brandeis wrote his famous law review article, and even *that* varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

      Way back in 1973, HUD under Elliot Richardson undertook a study on the privacy effects of this new information technology. It was ver

    • by Abreu (173023)

      Someone better tell Spiderman... He's been doing this for ages

  • by davidwr (791652) on Wednesday September 30, 2009 @08:41AM (#29592597) Homepage Journal

    You are now free to drive around the Commonwealth.

    With apologies to Southwest Airlines.

  • TERRORISM!! (Score:4, Insightful)

    by ObsessiveMathsFreak (773371) <obsessivemathsfreakNO@SPAMeircom.net> on Wednesday September 30, 2009 @08:42AM (#29592603) Homepage Journal

    There are terrorists, pedophiles and drug dealers out there. Any arguments for civil liberties and the rule of law are automatically invalid!

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by davidwr (791652)

      First they came for the bomb-making kiddie-loving drug-dealers ....

  • by EmagGeek (574360) <<gterich> <at> <aol.com>> on Wednesday September 30, 2009 @08:44AM (#29592637) Journal

    You cannot be forced to provide testimony or evidence against yourself. By tracking your vehicle, the state is forcing you to disclose your location at all times against your will, which is also a violation of the 5th.

    This is the same reason why you cannot be forced to reveal the encryption keys on your computer by your own will.

    • by nomadic (141991) <nomadicworld@NOSpam.gmail.com> on Wednesday September 30, 2009 @08:53AM (#29592761) Homepage
      You cannot be forced to provide testimony or evidence against yourself. By tracking your vehicle, the state is forcing you to disclose your location at all times against your will, which is also a violation of the 5th.

      That doesn't sound right; by that logic wiretapping would never be allowed because the defendant may incriminate himself against his will.
    • This is the same reason why you cannot be forced to reveal the encryption keys on your computer by your own will.

      Yes, but would you really want to put it to the test? http://news.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=08/07/15/120220 [slashdot.org]. That guy is still in jail to this day.

    • by Kjella (173770) on Wednesday September 30, 2009 @09:55AM (#29593649) Homepage

      What nonsense. You can refuse answering questions or giving evidence, but the police can observe your actions without warrant where possible and with warrant where necessary. If that reveals your crimes that's fair game, the 5th amendment doesn't apply unless you've been asked or instructed to provide something. It is then your right to refuse.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Dare nMc (468959)

      I like your interpretation better, unfortunately that's not the common interpretation. People are required to turn over evidence against themselves all the time. Evidence of where you have been, what you did/said/bought is all fair game (with just cause.) Heck if you recorded yourself, and the prosecutor hears about it you can be forced to turn that over. Your not even allowed to destroy it if you know it is evidence in a on going case. You are not required to tell anyone about the GPS/tapes/purchases.

    • By tracking your vehicle, the state is forcing you to disclose your location at all times against your will, which is also a violation of the 5th.

      There are two ways the state can track your vehicle, resulting in the 'disclosure of your location at all times against your will' -

      1) Surreptitiously follow you around, photographing where you're going and taking notes. This is how it was done previously, and didn't require a warrant. Often subjects would be tracked night and day, without their knowledge.

  • Bait cars? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Avalain (1321959) on Wednesday September 30, 2009 @08:50AM (#29592713)
    Would this law come into play in the use of bait cars? On one side the police would be tracking a suspect via GPS installed on a car without a warrant. On the other side it would be the cops own vehicle instead of the suspects. Common sense tells me that bait cars would be perfectly fine, but I can still see a car thief using this ruling as a defense.
    • Re:Bait cars? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Drunken Buddhist (467947) on Wednesday September 30, 2009 @08:52AM (#29592745) Homepage

      There is no expectation of privacy or security in a stolen vehicle. In fact, there is an expectation of seizure.

      • by DavidTC (10147)

        In fact, there is an expectation of seizure.

        Does this mean, if you're driving a stolen car, and they don't seize it, and they don't have a warrant not to seize it, you can sue them for violating your civil rights? ;)

        I laugh, but actually police probably do need some sort of court-ordered justification (It probably wouldn't be called a 'warrant'.) to let a non-owner drive off in a stolen car if they, for some reason, wanted to do that.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Zordak (123132)
      Why would a ruling by the Supreme Court of Maine affect anything in Oregon?
      • by schwit1 (797399)
        I suspect the Oregon police are doing the same with GPS.
      • Why would a ruling by the Supreme Court of Maine affect anything in Oregon?

        Maine and Massachusetts have been separate states for almost 200 years.

  • by richardoz (529837) on Wednesday September 30, 2009 @09:14AM (#29593017) Homepage
    I would think that is is preferable to track a suspects car (at a distance) using one of these devices than to persue them at close range causing a "high speed chase". A number of innicent persons have been hurt as a result of police persuits. Not every police department can have a helicopter ready for these due to cost constraints.
    • I agree as long as the police to it legally. They present their evidence for reasonable suspicion of a suspect to a judge. The judge issues a warrant allowing the police to tamper with the car owner's property by installing the GPS tracking device.

      • by cdrguru (88047)

        Why would a judge issue a warrant without proof? Unless there is proof that the "suspect" committed a crime there are plenty of judges that will not issue a warrant based on "suspicion" or even "probable cause". In areas where judges are elected many judges are rightfully concerned that they might not get elected if they approve police requests for warrants. Criminals vote too, you know.

        From what I have heard, it is a continue battle between prosecutors (who get the warrants), the police (who want them t

  • by CopaceticOpus (965603) on Wednesday September 30, 2009 @09:14AM (#29593019)

    How about the reverse? Can we put GPS trackers on cop cars? I really want to replicate the video game minimap experience with a GPS dash unit.

  • fishing expeditions (Score:5, Informative)

    by Darth Cider (320236) on Wednesday September 30, 2009 @09:16AM (#29593043)

    Suppose the technology becomes so cheap that a hundred thousand motorists can be tracked by GPS in any given city, much less any given state. Why wouldn't the police want to deploy every available tracking device in a fishing expedition, even if no suspicion of wrong-doing guides their choice of who to track? The odds are that eventually someone innocent will be in the wrong place at an inauspicious time. I wouldn't want to be that person, then have to explain how "opportunity" is irrelevant, especially if there is any vaguely tenable argument for the presence of means and motive.

    Let them get warrants. Let there be some oversight. The technology hasn't been banned. Presumption of innocence shouldn't begin in the courtroom.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by JediTrainer (314273)
      Suppose the technology becomes so cheap that a hundred thousand motorists can be tracked by GPS in any given city, much less any given state.

      Why bother when you can already do this with cameras [infowars.com]?
  • by Anonymous Coward

    ...all those criminals you tracked with your spider trackers are now being released from prison. You unconstitutional hack you...

    C'mon, someone HAD to say it.

    [and please note: I am VERY glad for this ruling]

  • by redelm (54142) on Wednesday September 30, 2009 @09:43AM (#29593463) Homepage

    Why should the police be worried about getting a warrent? It is not as if officers are walking around with GPS devices to plant on suspects they suddenly see. No, these are planned operations with justification. Then why not get a warrent?

    Police should not be wasting public resources nor possessing and exercising excessive discretion in "following hunches". Get the warrent. Its' easy.

  • How is the GPS installation physically performed? Do they have a cop walk up to a car and clip it onto the bottom, all while hoping no one notices? What if the car is in a garage? What if you see them putting the GPS on your car, after they have obtained a warrant? Are you allowed to take it off?
    • by gcatullus (810326)

      Car is parked on public street, and cop does indeed clip/tape the gps on. Cop could not enter private property i.e. garage to do that. If you removed the gps unit after a warrant you could be charged with damage to police property. Assuming that you didn't "damage" it I'm sure you'd be charged with something but it would be a tough sell.

    • What if you see them putting the GPS on your car, after they have obtained a warrant? Are you allowed to take it off?

      Yes, you can take off the device, just like you could take off any other part of your car. You can probably even destroy it if you want.

      There's actually a guy who discovered a tracker, destroyed it, was arrested by the police for destroying their property, and he won, but an important part of the case was that there was no identifying mark on the tracker identifying it as police property.

      They knew he knew it was a police tracker, but could not prove it. (And he, of course, didn't have to testify if he did or not.) Hence, legally, he could do whatever he wanted to it, just like he could to any other part of his car.

      So, unless they've started labeling them 'property of the police', you can destroy them if you want, or just claim ownership of them. I mean, as far as you know, it's just some part of your car. They have to prove you knew it was owned by someone else.

      If it is labeled as owned by someone else, it is legally 'mislaid property', which is when the owner put something somewhere on purpose and didn't come back to get it. (As opposed to, for example, dropping it, which is 'lost property'.)

      You are required to turn 'mislaid property' over the owner of the premise it's found on. Aka, the owner of the car. After which, the owner of the car has to keep it for a specific amount of time in case the person comes back to claim it. If the owner does not come back to claim it in a specific amount of time, the car owner now legally owns it.

      See your state laws for your requirements, and if you have any obligation to attempt to find the owner, or notify the police. (Hilariously, if you are required to notify the local police, some police departments are so discombobulated you could probably notify the people in charge of keeping track of lost property you'd found some GPS tracker owned by 'the police', and that would never get forward to anyone who would actually claim it.)

      But, regardless of whether you know it's owned by someone else, and what the laws say about mislaid property, you can certainly remove it. It's your car, you can unattach anything from it you want. (Although you'll get a ticket if you remove headlights or mufflers or whatever and then attempt to operate it on a public road.;)

      But now there are a lot of people flabberghasted I'd be saying this about official police stuff. Well, legally, once you know about a warrant, you can't interfere with it, so if you knew the police had installed it on your car as part of a legal search, you couldn't remove it.

      But this requires them actually informing you of the warrant, which they obviously don't do for secret tracking. Otherwise, the law allows you to assume they absentmindedly installed a GPS tracker in your car while peering under your car, and forgot to pick it up when they stood up.

  • by mark-t (151149) <markt@ l y n x.bc.ca> on Wednesday September 30, 2009 @10:07AM (#29593833) Journal
    Here's a question though.... if the owner has no knowledge of the installation of such a monitoring or tracking device, but later discovers it, is he or she committing any crime by disposing of it on their own? Particularly considering the fact that if they did not know about it, they would not necessarily have any reason to realize why it was there in the first place, and in some cases not even realize exactly what it is.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Chris Tucker (302549)

      Ideally, here in Boston/Cambridge one finds it, realizes what it is, glues a VERY strong magnet to it, and then, affixes the GPS unit to one of the Green/Red/Orange Line subway cars or buses when next to it at a stop light/or as a passenger.

      Hilarity ensues.

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by PPH (736903)

        Or find the bar that the cops park behind while on duty and stick it to one of their bumpers.

        Watch them:

        • Chase themselves.
        • Explain what all the cops are doing at Li'l John's bar and grill all day.
  • Why is this not covered by wiretap laws and recording laws? The GPS device is recording information about you and sending it to someone else.

  • by herojig (1625143) on Wednesday September 30, 2009 @11:11AM (#29594937) Homepage
    But the dude was still busted on cocaine possession, and the conviction held. However, kudos to the Mass Supreme Court for pointing to errs in police ways. The cops just have to get more creative then that to track down whoever, and quit trying to cut corners using technology - instead they should develop better detective skills.

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