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GPS Tracking Laws

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Is It Legal to Mount a GPS Device Inside My Car?

Many cars come equipped with GPS, or “Global Positioning Systems” that provide drivers with maps and driving directions. According to most state laws, an electronic GPS device can be mounted in a vehicle, as long as the device doesn’t obstruct the person’s view while driving. The device should be mounted either:

  • Within a 7-inch “square” in the lower corner of the passenger side windshield; or
  • Within a 5-inch “square” in the lower corner of the driver’s side windshield

GPS devices should be used in a way that does not distract the driver while operating their vehicle. This could lead to traffic accidents, or a costly traffic ticket for distracted driving. For example, the driver should program the GPS device and study their route before they begin driving, so as to minimize confusion while driving.

Can the Police Use a GPS Device to Track My Vehicle?

It depends. The law concerning the government tracking has only recently started to be analyzed. Unfortunately, this puts the law far behind the development of the technology is evaluating. 

According to the Supreme Court in United States v. Jones, police use of a GPS device to track a suspect’s vehicle is considered a “search” under the Fourth Amendment. This means that the police must secure a search warrant before affixing a GPS device to a person’s car for the purpose of tracking them.

Once the police secure a valid search warrant, they can attach a GPS device on the outside of a car, typically underneath the body or underneath a bumper. The device will disclose the location of the suspect’s vehicle. However, this ruling was split into three separate opinions, making the application of the rule difficult.

As a result, courts throughout the states have been applying the law differently, often reaching completely contrasting conclusions over the same issues. Below are the main areas of confusion.

  • Privacy – Arguments are being made that this case requires courts to dismiss warrantless surveillance evidence obtained by other means, such as a video camera. These arguments hinge on the idea that the Fourth Amendment protects one’s reasonable expectation of privacy, and that the court has determined that this type of long-term tracking is an invasion of that privacy.
  • Non-Owners – Courts are also split as to whether or not evidence obtained through this type of tracking should apply to the passengers of the vehicle. On one hand, a judge may reason that, similar to traffic stops, passengers in the vehicle are also subject to the “observations” made by the search. On the other hand, warrants require probable cause, and there is almost certainly none with respect to the passengers. Additionally, the search is limited to what - and who - is explicitly named in the warrant the passengers are likely not named in the warrant.

Can I Use a GPS Device to Track Another Person’s Car?

Private use of a GPS device to track another citizen’s car is also debatable. Generally speaking, it’s legal to use a GPS device to monitor another person’s car if:

  • The person or company attaching the GPS owns the vehicle.
  • The GPS device is place on the outside of the car, such as underneath a bumper.
  • The vehicle is visible or accessible to the public place, such as a street or parking lot, when the device is placed on it.
  • The information obtained could also be obtained by physically following the vehicle.
  • The vehicle is not located on another person’s private property when the GPS is attached.

However, it’s probably illegal to use the GPS tracking devices when:

  • Installing the device requires breaking into the car.
  • The device would need to be “hardwired” into the car.
  • The vehicle is in a location where the owner has a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as inside of a garage on their property or behind tall hedges, and can only be installed by trespassing.

Again, the above is a general outline. Depending on the laws of the state and trespassing issues aside, the act of invading another person’s privacy to install the GPS device may amount to a criminal act itself. 

Should I Speak to a Lawyer for Advice on GPS Tracking Laws?

GPS devices are newer technology, and the legality of their use may vary by state law. Additionally, even federal courts are split on how to handle the technology. If you have any legal issues involving a GPS tracking device, you should consult with a criminal lawyer for advice. This is particularly true if you feel that the police have wrongfully used GPS evidence against you. Your attorney will be able to explain the GPS laws of your state and what sort of rights and remedies you have.

Photo of page author Matthew Izzi

, LegalMatch Legal Writer and Attorney at Law

Last Modified: 11-29-2017 12:36 AM PST

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