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Can The Police Put A GPS Tracking Device On My Car In Minnesota?

by | Nov 22, 2011 | Criminal Defense

Can the police put a GPS tracking device on my car?

We Americans generally quite like our cars:  we like road trips, Sunday drives, the interstate, and drive-thrus.  So it’s unsurprising that for most people, it is a little uncomfortable to think about police putting a tracking unit on our car without our knowledge.  But r

The main issues in the case, from a legal perspective anyway, involve the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees us all the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.  The way that courts have interpreted that amendment in the past is to determine that unless the police have a warrant or some exception to the general warrant requirement applies, the police can’t search anything belonging to someone in a place where that person has a reasonable expectation of privacy.  A GPS tracker, if placed on a car, gives the police information about the roads the car driver is driving on.  So, one question is whether or not the driver has a reasonable expectation of privacy in the roads that they drive on.

That brings up a second issue that could enter into the Supreme Court’s decision:  does it depend whether you drive on a public or private road?  It could be argued that a driver has a reasonable expectation of privacy on private roads but not on public roads.  So, one possible decision the court could come to would be to say that police can use information from the GPS involving a driver’s movements on public roads but not on private roads.  This wouldn’t be the most satisfactory conclusion for the public, of course, because it means the police can still put the trackers on cars.

Another issue that might factor into the court’s decision is how GPS tracking should be characterized.  Is it just like a police officer trailing a suspect for a few hours?  Is it no worse than the police putting a beeper into a car which can only be tracked from a short distance and which doesn’t produce any computer data (which the court allowed in a case that was decided in 1983)?  Or, should GPS tracking be considered different because it produces recorded data and doesn’t rely on police officers doing anything?  It will likely be a concern for the court that although GPS tracking might be similar in some ways to the beeper, GPS tracking would allow virtually unlimited surveillance, whereas the beeper would only allow nearby, short-term surveillance.

Another problem with the GPS trackers is that someone has to install them.  Should it be considered a “search” for police to install something on your car?  Would it matter whether the car was parked in a driveway or on a public street?  In one case from January 2010, a federal court of appeals found that the owner of a car did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in his driveway because the driveway didn’t have a fence, “no trespassing” sign, or any other sort of feature that would prevent someone from going into the driveway.  If the Supreme Court would to adopt that reasoning, one result could be a sudden spate of fence-building in neighborhoods across the country.  On the other hand, if the court rules that the act of installing the trackers constitutes an illegal search if done without a warrant, that could simply result in law enforcement developing trackers which don’t require installation.  It’s definitely a big decision for the court and one with potentially wide-ranging impacts for all of us.

GPS tracking devices in Minnesota

Minnesota is a bit of a unique state because there already is a law on the books which requires police to obtain an order before placing a mobile tracking device on your care.  The law is Minnesota Statute 626A.35 and 626A.37.  There are some requirements that the device must be used to investigate illegal activities and that it is only valid for 60 days.

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