Wisconsin Appeals Court Upholds Warrantless GPS Spying

The Newspaper
by The Newspaper

Police in Wisconsin need no warrant to electronically track the moves of motorists not suspected of any crime, according to a ruling handed down yesterday by the state court of appeals. The decision came as a three-judge panel unanimously declined to overturn the stalking conviction of Michael A. Sveum that had been based largely on evidence provided by a Global Positioning System (GPS) tracking device secretly installed on Sveum’s car while it was parked on his private driveway.


Sveum argued that this 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 that uses public roads because the same information would be available to any human officers stationed to observe the streets.

“We agree with the state that neither a search nor a seizure occurs when the police use a GPS device to track a vehicle while it is visible to the general public,” Judge Lundsten wrote for the court.

In this case, police did obtain a warrant before using the GPS device, but the appellate judges insisted no such warrant was even necessary. The court based its reasoning on a pair of twenty-five-year-old US Supreme Court cases, US v. Knotts and US v. Karo, which covered the legal limitations of using a primitive transmitter as a tracking device.

“Knotts and Karo teach that, to the extent a tracking device reveals vehicle travel information visible to the general public, and thus obtainable by warrantless visual surveillance, the use of the device does not normally implicate Fourth Amendment protections,” Lundsten wrote. “It follows that no Fourth Amendment violation occurred here simply because the police used a GPS device to obtain information about Sveum’s car that was visible to the general public.”

Although the device tracked Sveum’s car to its garage, it did not track movements within the garage. Thus, it did not tell police anything they could not have learned from conducting physical surveillance to determine when he entered or departed from his property, the court reasoned. The privacy consequences of the ruling forced the appeals panel to issue a forceful recommendation that the legislature change the law to limit police power to conduct warrantless tracking operations.

“We are more than a little troubled by the conclusion that no Fourth Amendment search or seizure occurs when police use a GPS or similar device as they have here,” Lundsten wrote. “So far as we can tell, existing law does not limit the government’s use of tracking devices to investigations of legitimate criminal suspects. If there is no Fourth Amendment search or seizure, police are seemingly free to secretly track anyone’s public movements with a GPS device… Consequently, we urge the legislature to explore imposing limitations on the use of GPS and similar devices by both government and private actors. Such limitations would appear to be consistent with limitations the legislature has placed on electronic intercepts of communications.”

New Hampshire adopted a law in 2007 banning GPS surveillance on highways not related to a specific criminal investigation.

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  • Kurt. Kurt. on May 11, 2009

    So the stalker was being stalked...theres irony there. This case had a warrent so I don't see any problem there. However, the court has extended that to police not requiring a warrent. AdamXYZ wrote a pretty funny response but let me take that one further, next time THE PRESIDENT comes to Wisconsin, request Secret Service place a tracker on his car for your enjoyment. What about placing it on your bosses car? I might want to know when he is coming to "supervise" me during my afternoon naps. Maybe I could put GPS receivers on famous peoples cars and sell a subscription to a secure web site with the information for the paparatzi? Or can only Police track your whereabouts? This is wrong on so many levels. Oh and GS650G? No, you can't destroy it. It remains government property and would be considered vandalism (that's still ilegal, right?). You also can't remove it (in this case) because you'd be obstructing an ongoing investigation. pfttt

  • CPTG CPTG on May 12, 2009

    I am not a lawyer and I do not know the law. What I know of constitutional law I learned in high school, which was many, many moons ago. That said, I have a problem with what this ruling (4th Amendment---unlawful search and seizure). 1. The cops HAVE THE RIGHT to visibly search your car (safety violation). 2. The cops HAVE THE RIGHT to search your car IF they have probable cause (drugs, guns, bombs, child porn, etc.). 3. The cops HAVE THE RIGHT to track you on your cell phone (GPS) and/or Computer and to intercept and listen to your conversations (Your use of public radio spectrum is not like your writing a letter and their unopening it). 4. It seems to me the cops CROSSED THE LINE by PHYSICALLY placing an object in your car without a court order to do so. A.) A wiretap is a wiretap--any monitoring devise requires a court order. B.) Since you are not using the public airways (GPS) or Cellphone---the cops can't claim you were using a public convayance which can be monitored without a court order C.) What they did is called 'breaking and entering'. Your car is your Real property. If the cops jimmied your door and put it under your seat---that's B&E. If the cops popped your hood and put the tracker in there, that's breaking and entering. If the cops put it inside your wheel well or inside your bumper, that's breaking and entering. If they left it on your fender, that could be OK?!!! 5. IS THERE A LAWYER IN THE HOUSE? This scares me---I would like a professional opinion.

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  • Arthur Dailey No.
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