By on September 21, 2009

Sometimes I feel like, somebody's watching me . . . (courtesy m.linuxjournal.com)

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled last Thursday that police officers need to obtain a warrant before using a Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) device to track a motorist. The ruling was handed down in the case of Everett H. Connolly who was convicted of cocaine trafficking after police traced his activities using a GPS device five years ago.For more than a year, police suspected that Connolly was a drug dealer and used traditional surveillance and investigative techniques to gather evidence. On August 30, 2004, state police took the next step by obtaining a warrant to place a GPS tracker on Connolly’s minivan. Using data from the device, police believed Connolly was on his way back from a drug buy in New York. On September 9, officers armed with a new search warrant arrested Connolly in Cape Cod. A search uncovered 124 grams of cocaine hidden in the vehicle.


In his defense, Connolly attempted to use technicalities to argue that the warrant for installing the GPS tracking device had expired, but state prosecutors went further and implied that no such warrant was even required. This spurred the high court to make clear its position that a valid warrant is always necessary.

“We conclude that the installation and use of the GPS device in the circumstances of this case was a seizure requiring a warrant, and that the warrant obtained had not expired when the minivan was seized,” Justice Judith A. Cowin wrote for the majority. “We conclude that a warrant was required here because the initial installation of the particular device clearly constituted a seizure under article 14 [of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights]… It is a seizure not by virtue of the technology employed, but because the police use private property (the vehicle) to obtain information for their own purposes.”

The court found in this case that the police followed all proper procedures to obtain judicial permission before acting. Given this, the full court upheld Connolly’s conviction. Three judges, however, disagreed with the majority’s reasoning that the use of GPS constitutes a ‘seizure’ of property.

“When there is no physical intrusion into the vehicle to install the GPS device but simply the attachment of a battery-powered device to the exterior of the vehicle, the police have not seized the vehicle, but instead have invaded the reasonable expectation of privacy of any person authorized to drive that vehicle,” Justice Ralph D. Gants wrote in his dissent. “Our constitutional analysis should focus on the privacy interest at risk from contemporaneous GPS monitoring, not simply the property interest. Only then will we be able to establish a constitutional jurisprudence that can adapt to changes in the technology of real-time monitoring, and that can better balance the legitimate needs of law enforcement with the legitimate privacy concerns of our citizens.”

In May, the New York State Court of Appeals agreed with the privacy reasoning of the dissenting justices, while Wisconsin’s second-highest court found no problem with warrantless spying.

A copy of the decision is available in a 170k PDF file at the source link below.

Source: PDF File Massachusetts v. Connolly (Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, 9/17/2009)

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10 Comments on “Massachusetts Supreme Court Strikes Down Warrantless GPS Spying...”


  • avatar
    mpresley

    Privacy in the electronic age is a tenuous concept, at best. Tenuous, not because we do not understand what we want (the prohibition of an unwarranted search and seizure), but because it is so easy for us to leave our “tracks” and so difficult for us to cover them in our electronic age.

    Certainly we should agree (I hope) that the police ought not be allowed to plant a homing device on our cars for any routine investigation w/o a warrant. I could only imagine such a thing in the case of an immediate life threatening action. However, in this case, it appears the police were simply lazy, and willing to let the GPS to do their dirty work for them.

    BTW, what happened to the days when cops just posed as users, buying some dope, and then making the arrest?

  • avatar
    dejal

    But using a GPS to monitor miles driven in some jurisdictions (or nationally) for tax purposes might be ok?

    Hell, they won’t even have to put a tracking unit on your car. All they will have to do is get a warrant for the GPS logs.

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    dejal :
    September 21st, 2009 at 6:36 pm

    But using a GPS to monitor miles driven in some jurisdictions (or nationally) for tax purposes might be ok?

    I’d agree this is a shit idea, but it’d have to be enacted into law by legislatures, so it’s an invasion of privacy that “we the people” signed off on, as opposed to criminal suspects who had no idea they were being tracked.

  • avatar
    FreedMike

    In an “undisclosed location,” Dick Cheney is having a fit.

  • avatar
    mcs

    GPS logs are so, so easy to forge. If you wanted to frame someone, it’s really easy to upload faked logs into the unit.

  • avatar
    spyspeed

    Oh boy, if this technology had been available to our selfless, dedicated public servants in the 1920’s, the whole world would have been made safe from those dastardly moonshiners.

  • avatar
    mpresley

    FreedMike : In an “undisclosed location,” Dick Cheney is having a fit.

    Maybe he’s just having a beer with the O-man as the latter renews the Patriot Act surveillance provisions. The problem with being partisan is that it often comes up and bites you on the ass when you least expect it.

  • avatar
    Airhen

    FreedMike : In an “undisclosed location,” Dick Cheney is having a fit.

    I’d rather be hunting with Dick Cheney then driving with Ted Kennedy.

  • avatar
    Martin Albright

    Sorry, but I don’t understand Judge Gants’ “expectation of privacy” statement. How can the places to which you drive your car be “private?”

    Ask yourself this: Suppose GPS wasn’t invented, but the police were so determined to get this suspect that they assigned a platoon of undercover officers, each with a different car, to follow this suspect wherever he went. Further suppose that either the suspect was extremely careless or that the undercover officers were so good that their surveillance was not detected.

    Suppose those officers observed the suspect traveling to a number of known or suspected drug sales or distribution locations. Would that have required a warrant?

    No, it would not. As long as the suspect is driving in public on a public highway, he has no “reasonable expectation of privacy” as to where he goes.

  • avatar
    oversight

    What search and seizure is must be examined, not the technique used. What if we used an X-ray machine to examine the contents of a locked vehicle parked on a public street? That is obviously illegal search, but by some viewpoints it would seem not because physical entry wasn’t used! Using technology to augment human capabilities to do a search that would otherwise be impossible without violating search and seizure makes it a violation, because people have an expectation of privacy in their effects. Otherwise people must be on guard against GPS trackers, X-ray machines and even resort to imagining unknown devices just in case are being used against oneself. This contradicts what living in a free society is about.


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