Landmark Ruling Says Police Need Warrant for GPS Surveillance

News Release: 
Wednesday, September 10, 2003

In a first-in-the-nation case, the Washington Supreme Court today unanimously ruled that police must obtain a warrant in order to track an individual’s movements by Global Positioning Systems (GPS). The ruling agrees with the contentions of an amicus brief submitted in the case by the American Civil Liberties Union.  The ACLU argued that it violates the Washington Constitution’s privacy protections for police to conduct GPS surveillance without first showing a judge that there is probable cause to believe an individual has committed a crime.

“The ACLU applauds the court’s ruling in this landmark case.  Tracking a person’s movements by GPS is highly intrusive.  It is the equivalent of placing an invisible police officer in the person’s back seat,” said ACLU of Washington Privacy Project Director Doug Klunder, who wrote the ACLU’s brief in the case.

GPS systems can track all the movements of a person or car without the presence of a police officer.  The ruling stems from an incident in which Spokane County sheriffs wired a GPS device to a person’s car to trace its movements.  While prosecutors claim using a GPS is no different than the time-honored practice of a police cruiser tailing a vehicle, the court found that 24-hour, uninterrupted surveillance by GPS is fundamentally different.

“The intrusion into private affairs made possible with a GPS device is extensive as the information obtained can disclose a great deal about an individual’s life,” said Justice Barbara Madsen in the court’s ruling.  The court pointed out that GPS devices can provide detailed information about personal details of an individual’s life, including travel to doctors’ offices and banks, attendance at houses of worship and political meetings, and visits to restaurants and bars.