GPS tracking is an easy and affordable way to monitor a person, vehicle, or asset. With minimal effort, you can know where someone is, where they've been, where they're going, and how fast they're traveling. GPS is a great option for parents concerned about their children getting to school safely, or business owners looking to optimize their fleet of vehicles. Before you decide to begin tracking, however, it's important to consider the legality of your GPS solution.
For starters, it's entirely legal to use a GPS tracking device on any vehicle or asset you own. But before you use a GPS tracking device on someone else's person, vehicle, or property, you should do a little research on current federal, state, and local laws. Laws are continually being readdressed as new cases are popping up in the legal world, so it’s important to stay up-to-date on the these changes.
As of now, here's what private citizens need to know about GPS tracking and the law:
It's generally legal to use a GPS tracking device if:
You or your organization own the vehicle or asset to be tracked
You own the asset that might be taken without your permission
Your children (under 18) are the focus of the tracking
You are tracking a car or asset for the purpose of legal repossession in the event of a default on a loan
It's generally illegal to use a GPS tracking device if:
You are not the owner of the car and do not have the legal right to track it
You are attempting to track a boyfriend or girlfriend in their own car
Court Cases That Have Changed GPS Laws
Since the introduction of GPS trackers to the marketplace, court cases and lawsuits addressing the ethical and legal uses of these devices to monitor the movements of others have multiplied. Some of these cases have addressed the legality of law enforcement officials using these devices to track private citizens, while others have been concerned with civilians using them to track their significant others, employees, children, and others. The dialogue about this topic remains ongoing as technology advances and applications for trackers increases.
In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that the government and law enforcement agents are not permitted to install GPS devices on a person or property of a person based on suspicion of lawbreaking unless a warrant is obtained first. Federal law has not specifically addressed whether it is legal or illegal for a private citizen to track another person, vehicle, or property, but a number of states have addressed the question. For example, in California, Texas, Virginia, and Minnesota, is it legal to use a GPS tracker on a vehicle as long as the vehicle’s owner has provided consent, while in Wisconsin, for example, a person could face criminal charges for using a GPS tracker on another person’s vehicle without permission. It's important to consult local and state laws, or speak with an attorney for any clarification.
Some court cases that have been pivotal in law changes or ongoing legal dialogue include:
Elgin v. Coca-Cola Bottling Co. in 2005: In this case, an employee’s company-issued vehicle was being tracked during and outside of work hours. The employee’s claim was rejected because the vehicle was owned by the company.
Tubbs v. Wynn Transport in 2007: A case in which an employee’s company-owned vehicle was being tracked without his knowledge. The decision sided with the employer who owned the vehicle and who, according to the court, had every right to track its whereabouts.
United States v. Jones in 2011: This case was brought about after police placed a GPS tracker on the vehicle of a suspected drug trafficker. The evidence obtained through the use of the GPS tracker was enough to convict Jones, but the courts ended up ruling against the police, calling it a violation of Jones’s Fourth Amendment rights. Jones is no longer serving his prison sentence.
Cunningham v. New York Department of Labor in 2013: In this case, an employee’s personal vehicle was being tracked even after hours, without his knowledge. However, this employee had been previously disciplined for falsified time reporting. The court ruled in favor of the employer as the GPS evidence clearly showed that the employee was falsifying his work time.
United States v. Katzin in 2013: A case in which the police placed a GPS tracker on the vehicle of a man they suspected of a chain of robberies. The charges against the Katzin brothers were ultimately dropped because the court decided that this was a Fourth Amendment violation on the part of the police.
It is apparent that laws about GPS tracking are more developed in areas where police and government officials are using them on private citizens. In citizen-to-citizen use, even in the case of employees and employers, the laws are more lax and undefined.
The Legality of Tracking for Police and Licensed Private Investigators
It is important to know that the laws governing GPS tracking by government agents, police, or private citizens are not definitive. The Fourth Amendment and other state and federal laws grant United States residents certain protections to their privacy, including strict limits on illegal search and seizure. But there's nothing in the Constitution that specifically addresses GPS tracking technology—or many other forms of electronic surveillance.
The Supreme Court and several lower courts issued rulings on GPS tracking in 2012 and 2013, but those decisions addressed narrow uses of the technology by police and employers, respectively. The courts didn't address the use of GPS tracking devices by private citizens or private investigators and no federal amendments were made to existing laws. While there have been cases in recent years addressing use of GPS tracking devices in the private sector, the rulings have been largely inconsistent. The one similarity among them is that, generally, when the owner of the vehicle or asset is the person who authorized the use of the GPS tracking device, the law is on their side.
With its recent ruling on GPS tracking by police, the Supreme Court left many questions unanswered. But the justices signaled that they were ready to delve more deeply into electronic surveillance issues. You can read more about the 2012 Supreme Court decision here.