Massachusetts Court Rules Police Must Have Warrant for GPS Devices

This past September, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued an opinion on a subject that has become contentious across the country: are the police required to have a search warrant before installing a global positioning system (GPS) device in a private citizen's vehicle? In Commonwealth v. Connolly, the state's highest court answered this question in the affirmative and limited the monitoring period to 15 days.

While many view the ruling in this case as a win-win for privacy rights and law enforcement personnel, there are still concerns about the broader implications of government use of GPS devices to track private citizens' movements.

Commonwealth v Connolly

In Connolly, the police had spent more than a year investigating suspected drug dealer Everett H. Connolly. Their investigation included information gathered from police observation, undercover informants and a GPS device installed in the defendant's minivan. The defendant was arrested and ultimately convicted of trafficking and distributing cocaine.

On appeal, one of the defendant's arguments was that the police had gathered information from the GPS device without a valid search warrant, which constitutes an illegal search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution and Article 14 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights.

The police had received a warrant authorizing them to install the tracking device in the defendant's minivan. However, the defendant argued that the warrant had expired before the police collected the information they needed to serve as the basis for the later warrant that was used to search his vehicle. During the vehicle search, the police confiscated cocaine and large amounts of cash. Since the search and seizure were unlawful and based on an invalid warrant, though, the defendant argued that the evidence collected from his minivan should not have been admitted in court.

The Supreme Judicial Court did not agree with the defendant's arguments. The court found that installing a GPS device into a private citizen's vehicle constitutes a seizure under the state's Declaration of Rights, and thus requires a validly issued warrant. However, the court also ruled that warrants related to GPS devices are good for 15 days and that the warrant in this case had not expired.

The court did not address whether installing a GPS device constitutes a search or seizure under the Fourth Amendment or whether it constitutes a search under the Declaration of Rights.

In issuing the Connolly opinion, the Massachusetts high court became the first court in the country to find that installing a GPS device constitutes a seizure. Other courts generally have focused on whether installing the tracking device requires a warrant because it constitutes a search of the vehicle.

Other Courts Split on Warrant Requirement

Several courts, both state and federal, have recently considered similar questions regarding law enforcement use of GPS devices to gather information on criminal suspects. So far, the courts have split on whether a warrant is required. A few months previously, a New York court reached the same conclusion as the Massachusetts court and held police officers are required by the state constitution to have a valid warrant. However, a Wisconsin appellate court ruled the opposite, finding that state law did not require law enforcement to obtain a warrant prior to placing a GPS device in a vehicle.

The federal courts have produced similarly divided results, with some districts finding that the Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures apply to GPS devices and others finding that they do not.

The US Supreme Court has not yet heard a case specifically dealing with the issue of GPS devices. In an earlier decision, United States v. Karo, the Court found that the use of an electronic beeper device to track a vehicle did not constitute a search for Fourth Amendment purposes. The Court held that since the beeper emitted only a local signal and required the police to track it closely, it provided no more information than could be gathered from visual surveillance, thus making the beeper nothing more than an extension of the physical abilities of the police.

In dicta, however, the Court stated that a more sophisticated, satellite device that replaced rather than enhanced an officer's abilities might be considered a search for Fourth Amendment purposes, requiring a search warrant.

Why Does This Matter?

While it is generally believed that law enforcement officials only use GPS tracking devices in limited cases, the broader concern is that the use may become more widespread. If there are no limits on the government's use of these types of tracking devices, the potential for abuse and invasion into private citizens' lives is great.

Requiring the police to first prove sufficient probable cause to obtain a warrant to install the device can help protect some privacy rights. At the very least, the police must produce enough evidence to convince a judge or magistrate that the individual is involved in criminal conduct before using GPS tracking.

Unfortunately, no system is perfect and there is still the potential for abuse even when a warrant is required. For more information on police use of GPS tracking devices or, more generally, about your Fourth Amendment rights to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney today.