By on May 9, 2009

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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17 Comments on “Wisconsin Appeals Court Upholds Warrantless GPS Spying...”


  • avatar
    shaker

    This has to require a warrant – even though it might be considered no different than surveillance in public, it requires no effort on the police’s part to be essentially ‘omnipotent’ regarding a vehicle’s (so, presumably a person’s) movements. Without a warrant, it’s essentially an invasion of privacy, and opens the door to casual tracking, and this information in the hands of authority is subject to abuse.

  • avatar
    don1967

    The Big Brother connotations of this headline are disturbing at first glance. But isn’t “warrantless spying” just a bit sensational?

    The guy was apparently under investigation for stalking, and the policed monitored the movements of his vehicle on public roads to determine whether or not he was following somebody. That’s all they did. They did not wiretap his phone line, go through his garbage, or plant a spy camera in his living room.

    We should save our outrage for when the police start putting GPS tracking devices on cars for unpaid parking tickets or failing to purchase tickets to the policeman’s ball.

  • avatar
    Dynamic88

    It would seem to me that the police have no right to attach something to a car w/o a warrant, or other court order of some type.

    There is no expectation of privacy on a public street, but I do have an expectation that my car not be tampered with.

  • avatar
    kaleun

    they keep track of all your cell phone data and locations, probably On-Star too…. so attachign that device is just saving money for a cop to drive behind him (and possibly being seen).
    they should get a warrant, though. but hey, they don’t get warrants to listen to our phone calls etc.

  • avatar
    Packard

    As the prevailing standard under the Fourth Amendment is a “reasonable expectation of privacy,” that the opinion indicates that even these three lame judges were “troubled” by the conclusion suggests that they should be troubled – because they’re flat out wrong. This is the same court, incidentally, that held that using infra-red technology without a warrant to see through the walls of your house didn’t offend the Fourth Amendment.

    And, of course, being “troubled,” they recommend the legislature should pass a law prohibiting this. But then, were that to be done, it wouldn’t be a constitutionally required step, so the exclusionary rule wouldn’t apply – so, if the cops violate that law, you don’t have your privacy protected by having the evidence gained excluded, you merely get to sue the cops – who are, of course, immune from suit by statute.

    In no other vocation is error so tolerated as in the legal profession. Every state has at least two layers of courts totally dedicated to correcting the errors of the courts below them. Institutionally, it’s a hell of a system when it’s built on correcting errors – instead of getting people who are smart enough not to commit them in the first place.

  • avatar
    ruckover

    As a resident of Wisconsin, I would like to thank the group Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce for having spent huge sums of money over the years on misleading and, at times, simply false ads in support of very conservative justices.

    Fighting Bob Lafolette would be outraged.

  • avatar
    rudiger

    This seems to be an odd ruling. In the case, police had obtained a court order to attach the GPS device to the vehicle of the appellant (who was a convicted, relentless stalker).

    The court ruled that not only was it legal for the police to have done what they did (which was what the stalker was arguing against), they went further and said that the police don’t have to get a warrant or court order to attach a GPS device.

    IOW, the appeals court made a ruling that went way beyond what the appeals case was filed on.

  • avatar
    fincar1

    It sounds to me as though their ruling went beyond what the appeal was filed on because they think the law should be changed.

  • avatar
    ihatetrees

    The court seemed to be inviting the legislature to regulate this practice. They obviously didn’t want to open a can of worms detailing exactly how much tracking (electronic?, cellular?, CCTV?, Visual?) of each type was permitted without a warrant.

    The person being tracked should at least be a suspect in a crime or on parole. Furthermore, a time limit on how long a person can be tracked should be set. There’s room here to be reasonable – Wisconsin’s legislature needs to think and write a law. Too many in government expect courts to do all the thinking.

    And one more thing. Make it a minor felony for non police busybodies to attach trackers to other’s vehicles.

  • avatar
    ZoomZoom

    The ad next to this article is a nice touch: “Lowest Priced GPS of 2009”.

    I wonder if they have a quantity discount for police departments?

  • avatar
    Aloysius Vampa

    If it’s no different than public surveillance, why not just do that? Because it’s more convenient this way, right? Then it’s not the same!

  • avatar
    AdamYYZ

    Soon they will be bugging our shoes…

    Where’s my Guy Fawkes mask?…

  • avatar
    marshall

    So ….

    I wonder what would happen if people started attaching GPS+transmitters to police cars, and documenting (in real time) the location of all of the department’s vehicles…

  • avatar
    AdamYYZ

    Haaa! Dude, thats awesome. I bet that would go over something like this:

    Cop: Hey! You there! What the fuck are you doing to my cruiser?!

    Adam: Relax bro, I’m just fixing a GPS tracker to your car. I’m curious where you go all day. I might be able to use that data to my advantage. And since you can do it to us willie-nillie, I figure that makes us about even.

    Cop: I say old bean, I do believe you have a valid point… What time is it?

    Adam: Its… a quarter to twelve.

    Cop: Are you hungry? There is a cheap lunch special today in the cafeteria at the police station. I could even give you a tour.

    Adam: Oh hey! Really? That would be cool! What’s the lunch special anyway?

    Cop: Its a CLUB sandwich!!!

    Adam: *THWAP!* *BIFF* Owww! thats *PORF* really painful! *BIHP*

  • avatar
    GS650G

    Would the cops mind if I removed their device, dropped it in front of the tire and ran their little toy over? How about if I attach it to the mail truck instead?

    If they want to play games we can play games. Anything hooked to my car for any reason is mine to do as I wish. If not, stay the hell off my car.

    And don’t give me that shit about ” if you’re not doing anything wrong you have nothing to worry about.” Next stop Onstar and mandatory GPS in all cars.

    It’s a small step from serving the public safety to controlling the public. And Johnny Six Pack will let them do it.

  • avatar
    Kurt.

    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

  • avatar
    CPTG

    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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