Wisconsin’s highest court yesterday approved police use of Global Positioning System (GPS) devices to track motorists, as long as a valid search warrant is obtained. In 2003, Madison Police Detective Mary Ricksecker attached a tracking device to the 1980 Chevy Beretta as it sat on the private driveway belonging to Michael A. Sveum, then age 35. Sveum was suspected of stalking his ex-girlfriend, Jamie Johnson based on nine hang-up calls that were placed at payphones around the city. The tracking device was eventually used to connect Sveum to the time and place of other calls.
Sveum argued that this method of tracking was illegal because the Fourth Amendment protected him against unreasonable searches. The state countered that police are free to attach a GPS device to track a vehicle on public roads because the same information would have been available to any human officers stationed to observe the streets. As this was the prosecution’s only argument, the court of appeals last year upheld the use of GPS without a warrant (view opinion). The supreme court took a different view, and considered whether the warrant that a judge issued in Sveum’s case was valid.
“We exercise our discretion to reach this issue, rather than deem it waived,” Justice Patience Drake Roggensack wrote for the majority. “We conclude that the order authorizing the installation and monitoring of a GPS tracking device on Sveum’s vehicle was a valid search warrant under the Fourth Amendment. First, the order was signed by a neutral and detached magistrate. Second, Ricksecker’s affidavit provided probable cause… Finally, the order particularly described the object into which the GPS was to be placed, i.e., Sveum’s vehicle; the circumstances that led agents to seek to install the GPS, i.e., evidence of Sveum’s stalking activities; and the length of time for which GPS surveillance was requested, i.e., no more than 60 days.”
The court dodged the question of whether warrantless spying was allowed.
“We elect not to resolve the first issue, and assume, without deciding, that a search or seizure occurred in this case that required authorization by a warrant,” Roggensack wrote.
Justice N. Patrick Crooks feared the majority decision could undermine constitutional protections.
“Given the increased prevalence of GPS devices used in day-to-day activities and the speed with which technological advances expand the ability and ways in which a person or object can be tracked, I believe that expanding this holding to other uses or other devices could have the potential to weaken protections guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment…” Crooks wrote.
Several Justices called on the legislature to impose limits on how GPS systems might be used.
“The myriad of technical, legal and policy issues involved in electronic surveillance lend themselves to legislative resolution, not ad hoc judicial authorizations or a bewilderingly complex judicial attempt to shoehorn the possibilities of new surveillance technologies into the parameters of statutes that were never meant to accommodate them,” Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson wrote in a dissenting opinion.
A copy of the decision is available in a PDF file at the source link below.