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Global Positioning Systems used by Police to Track Suspects

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A warrant is required for GPS tracking by police in PA

By Attorney Elisabeth K.H. Pasqualini, Narcotics Defense Attorney, Harrisburg, PA

GPS technology has become commonplace in many Americans' lives. An increasing number of Americans have GPS systems in their automobiles and use GPS technology on their cellular phones.  The powerful benefits of GPS officially began in 1978 with the launch of eleven satellites into orbit by the Rockwell International Corporation.  These first generation satellites were only intended for military use, but by the 1980s the U.S. government made the system available to civilians as well.

In simple terms, GPS operates on three levels: satellites orbiting the Earth; control and monitoring stations on Earth; and the GPS receivers owned by users.  GPS receivers owned by users obtain information from the satellites in orbit and utilize triangulation technology to determine the exact location of the receiver.  Since 1999, law enforcement agencies have had access to this technology through specially designed "under vehicle" GPS tracking devices.  These easily concealed GPS systems are approximately the size of a standard wallet.  The devices are installed on the undercarriage of an automobile with strong magnets that bond the device to the metal undercarriage of the suspect's car.  Power is supplied to the system through eight common "C" batteries, which last for approximately eight hours.  Each system is typically powered by four power packs, which can be "changed in seconds" by law enforcement officers.  If longer surveillance is needed, officers can also hard-wire the GPS system to the automobile's power source in order to avoid constant changing of the power packs. The system even transitions to hibernation mode if the tracked automobile is not in motion for thirty minutes. During testing of the device, automobiles were driven over speed bumps, dips, and rough roadway terrain, all with the GPS system successfully remaining in place on the vehicle.

A Warrant is Required under PA Law

The Pennsylvania Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Control Act provides that an order authorizing the use of one or more mobile tracking devices may be issued to an investigative or law enforcement officer by the court of common pleas upon written application.  A "tracking device" is defined as an electronic or mechanical device which permits only the tracking of the movement of a person or object and does not include the use of radar to measure the speed of vehicles traveling on the highway.  

However, the Act also states that movement of the tracking device within an area protected by a reasonable expectation of privacy must not be monitored absent exigent circumstances or an order supported by probable cause that criminal activity has been, is, or will be in progress in the protected area and that the use of a mobile tracking device in the protected area will yield information relevant to the investigation of the criminal activity.

What's Required for a Warrant?

The Pennsylvania Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Control Act provides that each application for an order authorizing the use of one or more mobile tracking devices must be by written affidavit, signed and sworn to or affirmed before the court of common pleas. The affidavit must-

  • - state the name and department, agency, or address of the affiant.
  • - identify the vehicles, containers, or items to which, in which, or on which the mobile tracking device must be attached or be placed, and the names of the owners or possessors of the vehicles, containers, or items.
  • - state the jurisdictional area in which the vehicles, containers, or items are expected to be found.
  • - provide a statement setting forth all facts and circumstances which provide the applicant with a reasonable suspicion that criminal activity has been, is, or will be in progress and that the use of a mobile tracking device will yield information relevant to the investigation of the criminal activity.

There have been various and differing pronouncements by other states and even among the Federal Courts as to whether the use of a GPS tracking device constitutes a "search" for 4th Amendment purposes and, therefore, requires either a warrant or a recognized exception to the requirement for a warrant. Chances are, however, if you are in PA, the police require a warrant.

As of 2012, Police will need a warrant under U.S. Constitution

Recently, however, the U.S. Supreme Court held in United States v. Jones, 132 S.Ct. 945, 181 L.Ed.2d 911 (2012), that the government's installation of a GPS device on the defendant's vehicle in order to "track" it constituted a "search" in violation of the Warrant Clause in the Fourth Amendment.

If you've been arrested and/or charged with a crime in which the police utilized a GPS tracking device to gain access to your home, car, storage shed, or other secured structure, contact an experienced attorney. You may contact Shaffer & Engle Law Offices, LLC toll free or email us today.

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