Court: use of GPS to track criminals requires warrant

Published 26 May 2009

The New York State’s supreme court ruled that the police cannot use GPS to track a criminal suspect without a warrant; majority decision said: “the use of these powerful devices presents a significant and, to our minds, unacceptable risk of abuse”

Privacy advocates have something to cheer about. New York State’s highest court ruled two weeks agothat police cannot use GPS technology to track criminal suspects without a warrant in a decision at least one Long Island law enforcement official said would add an unnecessary step in an investigation. A spokesman for Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice said she disagreed with the decision of the state Court of Appeals, which ruled 4-3 that satellite tracking devices violate the rights of suspects unless authorized by a judge.

The ruling, in a case stemming from an upstate robbery investigation, will not compromise current investigations in Nassau involving GPS devices, spokesman Eric Phillips said.

Newsday reports that the court’s majority said state police in upstate Latham conducted an illegal search when they attached a tracking device to a van belonging to robbery suspect. Without a judge’s approval, “the use of these powerful devices presents a significant and, to our minds, unacceptable risk of abuse,” Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman wrote. In a dissenting opinion, Judge Susan Read wrote that banning warrantless electronic surveillance “unnecessarily burdens” police and the courts.

Rice “agrees with the dissenting judges and believes the only difference between visual surveillance by officers and a GPS being stuck on the exterior of a car on a public street is the use of technology,” Phillips said.

Critics say warrantless use of tracking devices poses a threat to privacy and violates constitutional protections against illegal searches and seizures. “In an era of rapidly advancing surveillance technology, this is an extraordinarily important ruling,” said Christopher Dunn, associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

Phillips said Nassau investigators will seek judicial authorization before using GPS devices. “The office will have to jump through another hoop to continue to use them, so that’s what we’ll do,” Phillips said.

A Nassau police spokesman, Det. Sgt. Anthony Repalone, said Tuesday it is routine to seek court warrants allowing surveillance. “This is one additional thing that we would apply for,” he said. Suffolk police will abide by the court’s ruling, a spokeswoman said.