In Landmark Ruling, Washington Supreme Court Says Police Need Warrant for Surveillance with Global Tracking Devices

Affiliate: ACLU of Washington
September 11, 2003 12:00 am

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OLYMPIA, WA – The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington today hailed a unanimous, first-in-the-nation ruling by the Washington Supreme Court that police must obtain a warrant in order to track an individual’s movements with Global Positioning Systems (GPS). The ruling agrees with arguments the ACLU submitted in a friend-of-the-court brief in the case.

“The ACLU applauds the court’s ruling in this landmark case. Tracking a person’s movements by GPS is highly intrusive. It is the equivalent of placing an invisible police officer in the back seat of a person’s car,” said ACLU of Washington Privacy Project Director Doug Klunder, who wrote the ACLU’s brief.

GPS systems can track all the movements of a person or car without the presence of a police officer. The ACLU argued that use of the devices without first showing a judge that there is probable cause to believe an individual has committed a crime violates state constitutional privacy protections.

The ruling stems from an incident in which Spokane County sheriffs wired a GPS device to a person’s car to trace its movements. While prosecutors claimed that using a GPS is no different than the time-honored practice of a police cruiser tailing a vehicle, the court found that 24-hour, uninterrupted surveillance by GPS is fundamentally different.

“The intrusion into private affairs made possible with a GPS device is extensive, as the information obtained can disclose a great deal about an individual’s life,” said Justice Barbara Madsen in the court’s ruling. The court pointed out that GPS devices can provide detailed information about an individual’s private life, such as travel to doctors’ offices and banks, attendance at houses of worship and political meetings, and visits to restaurants and bars.

The use of such technology with legal restraints could turn the United States into a full-fledged surveillance society, the ACLU has argued. For more information on privacy and technology go to /Privacy/PrivacyMain.cfm

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