By on July 12, 2011

Police are not alone in the ability to secretly use GPS devices to track someone without his knowledge, the New Jersey Superior Court’s Appellate Division ruled Thursday. A three-judge panel made this decision in the context of a privacy invasion suit brought by Kenneth R. Villanova against Innovative Investigations Inc after his now ex-wife hired the private-eye company to spy on him. She intended to document alleged infidelities prior to filing for divorce in May 2008. At the firm’s suggestion, Villanova’s wife installed the tracking device on her husband’s GMC Yukon-Denali which followed the vehicle’s every move for forty days.

Kenneth Villanova argued that the incident violated privacy statutes. He added a privacy violation claim against his wife during divorce proceedings but had to file the present case separately against the private investigator who followed him. State law forbids intrusion into private places.

“One who intentionally intrudes, physically or otherwise, upon the solitude or seclusion of another or his private affairs or concerns, is subject to liability to the other for invasion of his privacy, if the intrusion would be highly offensive to a reasonable person,” the appellate division wrote in a 1989 case summarizing the statute.

Attorneys for the private investigators countered that Villanova was tracked on public roads and had no expectation of privacy. Villanova had no tangible proof that he drove in any secluded location, which the court saw as the only place one’s privacy could be invaded.

“We find plaintiff’s arguments unpersuasive,” Judge Joseph F. Lisa wrote. “We hold that the placement of a GPS device in plaintiff’s vehicle without his knowledge, but in the absence of evidence that he drove the vehicle into a private or secluded location that was out of public view and in which he had a legitimate expectation of privacy, does not constitute the tort of invasion of privacy.”

The court found that it made no difference whether Villanova’s movements were tracked for forty minutes or forty days in the eyes of the law.

A copy of the decision is available in a 70k PDF file at the source link below.

Source: Villanova v. Innovative Investigations (New Jersey Superior Court Appellate Division, 7/7/2011)


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23 Comments on “New Jersey: Court Approves Private GPS Spying...”

  • avatar

    Not a lawyer here, but “Villanova’s wife installed the tracking device” makes it sound to me that she should have been the defendant instead of the PI company. Also, if her name is on the title as co-owner, I see no legal issue with this at all. Trust issues, sure, but not legal.

  • avatar

    Short range GPS jammer, anyone? I’m going to make a million selling them.

  • avatar

    The missing article in the constitution would be a right to privacy, the closest we have is the fourth or fifth. That leaves a patchwork of statutes and laws open to interpretation and abuse. Privacy is something you have to guard, don’t expect anyone or a government agency to do it for you. They tend to violate it more than most.

    Does anyone think there is a chance of getting a right to privacy enacted?

    These cases, combined with warrant-less GPS bugs, opens the door to automobiles providing real time data on just about anything. And subsequent regulations and laws. And data mining.

    Look at the UK for a glimpse into the future.

  • avatar
    N Number

    I find this decision disturbing, but couldn’t somebody at least bring up a lesser argument of vandalism of private property or something to that effect? Surely the act of placing a hidden GPS device or any other object on a vehicle which isn’t yours could fall under some sort of prosecutable offense, perhaps voiding any data it gathered. I wish that placing flyers under windshield wipers should be subject to some sort of penalty by virtue of the fact that somebody is touching your car without consent and for no justifiable reason.

  • avatar

    I wonder how the local cops would react if I attached a GPS unit to their private rides? I’ll venture a guess that they would be less than understanding.

    • 0 avatar

      Dude, we live in the progressive era now, and in the progressive canon, some people are more equal than others; remember?

      Anyway, as long as cops can affix GPS devices to people’s cars, non cops should not be treated any differently. It’s that pesky equality thingy again. Back when America was still civilized, most police action was undertaken by civilians deputized on a case by case basis anyway. Nor by an army of public sector unionized equaler than others on the grift.

      • 0 avatar

        I don’t know which right-wing potshot is more gratuitous here: labeling support for a police state as “progressive” (it’s the opposite), or injecting the word “unionized” into a completely unrelated discussion of police powers.

        I’d guess you’re one of those trolls being paid 50 bucks to spread posts for the Koch Brothers, right? Can we talk about cars for a while? You’ll notice it’s mentioned in the name of the site.

  • avatar

    I don’t care for the outcome of the decision, but I doubt that the court had much choice:

    -There is already precedent that individuals don’t have a right to privacy in a public place. If you’re on a public street, others have the right (within reason) to observe you, film or photograph you, and report on your behavior. In this case, the vehicle was used on public roads, where there is no expectation of privacy.

    -The ex-wife co-owned the car. She installed the GPS unit onto her own property. I don’t see how a court could possibly deny her the right to do that to something that she owns.

    If we want this stuff to be illegal, then it has to come from statute. This is one area in which the courts can’t do much. If the state legislature tomorrow passed a law that outlawed GPS devices from being installed without a warrant or else with the written consent of all of the owners of the property, then the court would have to abide by that. With existing laws, I doubt that there was an alternative.

    • 0 avatar

      “This is one area in which the courts can’t do much.”

      Funny observation. The courts can find an expectation of privacy that allows you to abort an unborn child but not one that keeps your movements from being tracked. I know, not the same court but still funny just the same.

      If the GPS was on a boat, would the rivers, lakes be considered public? What about the ocean? Inside territorial waters, out side territorial waters? And what about aircraft?

  • avatar

    In cases like this, GPS tracking isn’t nearly as invasive as hiring a private investigator. It merely tracks vehicle movements through the public domain. It does not peer into windows with a telephoto camera lens, record conversations, or go through trash cans.

    I’m all for privacy, but banning GPS tracking devices while allowing all these other activities seems rather pointless. It recalls the cellphone ban which allows people to read books or do their nails while driving.

  • avatar

    Guess it’s OK to GPS track the police & hwy patrol now. Truckers have been tracking ‘Bears’ since I can remember.

  • avatar

    This is just a higher tech (and lazier) way of having the PI follow they guy around. If it’s not illegal (I don’n know) to have a PI tracking someone, why is this any different?

    • 0 avatar

      1.Private investigators have to follow rules, a box on your car does not.
      2. The data can be intercepted or the box stolen. So information is then leaked outside of the ring of control which has flimsy standing in the first place.

      These things are detectable so go ahead and have fun with them. Just don’t be surprised to find it on a city bus or mail truck.

      Again, you are responsible for your privacy. Don’t make it easy for them (like with a computer) and feel free to defend it when necessary. They don’t have a right to information about you, they have to gather it somehow.

      • 0 avatar

        The light at the end of the tunnel, is that Moore’s law predicts that GPS devices will in not to long be so cheap that anyone can buy several dozen smaller and smaller versions of them and spread them around liberally. Like on cop cars and the cars of politicians and others supposedly more important than the rest.

        A world where absolutely anyone can trivially spy on absolutely anything anyone else does, may well be inferior to some tech free utopia where noone can spy on anyone; but it is still infinitely better than a world where only a select few (that’d be those powerful and well connected) can spy on everyone else. I’d be a lot more comfortable about Obama being able to direct some alphabet soup to spy on me, if I could similarly direct my cheap Chinese gadget do the same to him. Symmetry is always and everywhere an unqualified positive in power relationships.

  • avatar

    So the trick is to find the GPS device your wife puts on your car, and put it on somebody else’s car.

    Wait a minute…I have to run out in the parking lot.

    • 0 avatar

      All’s fair in Love and War

    • 0 avatar

      Then find it again, if it was on a car where you knew its regular parking spot, and put it back on your own car.

      Or you could just put it on a police vehicle. Maybe that’s what celebrities will do when they sweep their vehicles in America for bugs left by the British tabloids.

    • 0 avatar

      No, no, you put it on your wife’s car.

      “Mrs Smith, the good news is that we found out who your husband is cheating on you with. The bad news is that we found out your boyfriend is also cheating on you. The really bad news…”

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