GPS devices, or global positioning system devices provide information such as location, speed, and direction of whatever they are attached to. Many vehicles now come equipped with GPS that provides drivers with driving directions and maps.

Pursuant to most state laws, electronic GPS devices may be mounted in vehicles so long as they do not obstruct the individual’s view while they are driving. A GPS device should be mounted either:

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

When used by a driver, a GPS device should be utilized in a way that does not distract the driver while they are operating their vehicle. Distracted driving may lead to traffic accidents or an expensive traffic ticket.

For example, many states have enacted hands-free laws which prohibit drivers from having their phones in their hands while driving. Drivers should program their GPS device and study their driving route prior to driving so they can minimize confusion that may occur while driving.

GPS devices are also options for parents who are concerned about their children driving and getting places safely. GPS devices may also be used by business owners who are looking to optimize their vehicle fleet.

It is legal for an individual to use a real-time GPS tracker on any asset or vehicle they own. However, prior to using one on another individual’s property or vehicle, an individual should review applicable local, state, and federal laws.

These laws are always being reviewed and updated as new situations arise. It is generally legal for a private citizen to use put a tracking device on a car in situations where:

  • An individual or their organization owns the vehicle or asset that will be tracked;
  • An individual owns an asset which may be taken without their permission;
  • An individual’s children under 18 years of age are the focus of the tracking; or
  • They are tracking a vehicle or an asset for legal repossession in the event of a default on a loan.

In general, it is illegal to use a GPS tracking device if an individual is not the owner of the vehicle and they do not have the legal right to track it. It is also generally illegal to use GPS tracking if an individual is attempting to track a significant other in their own vehicle.

The United States Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that the government and law enforcement agencies are not permitted to install GPS devices on an individual or an individual’s property based on suspicion of breaking the law unless they obtain a warrant first. Federal laws have not specifically addressed whether it is illegal or legal for a private citizen to track another individual, property, or a vehicle.

Many states, however, have addressed this issue. It is legal to use a real-time GPS tracker on a vehicle so long as the owner provides consent in the following states:

  • California;
  • Texas;
  • Virginia; and
  • Minnesota.

In contrast, in Wisconsin, an individual may face criminal charges for using a GPS tracker on another individual’s vehicle without their permission. If an individual has any questions related to GPS trackers in their state, a local attorney can advise them of the applicable laws.

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

The laws governing law enforcement using GPS devices to track an individual’s vehicle have only begun to be analyzed in recent years. Because of this, the laws are far behind the development of technology.

In United States v. Jones, the Supreme Court held that law enforcement use of a GPS device to track a suspect’s vehicle is considered a search under the 4th Amendment to the United States Constitution. This means that the law enforcement must secure a search warrant prior to affixing a GPS device to an individual’s car for the purpose of tracking them.

Once law enforcement obtains a valid search warrant, they are permitted to attach a GPS device on the outside of a vehicle, often underneath the body of the vehicle or underneath a bumper. The GPS device will disclose the location of a suspect’s vehicle.

This ruling, however, has been split into 3 separate opinions, which makes application of the rule difficult. As a result, laws regarding putting a tracking device on a car vary by state.

States have applied the law differently. In some cases, completely contrasting conclusions have been reached on the same issue.

The main areas of confusion related to GPS devices include privacy and non-owners. There are arguments made that the Jones case requires courts to dismiss warrantless surveillance that is obtained by other means, such as video cameras.

These arguments are based on the idea that the 4th Amendment protects an individual’s reasonable expectation of privacy. In addition, the court has held that this type of long-term tracking is considered an invasion of privacy.

Courts are split regarding whether or not evidence that is obtained through this type of tracking should apply to passengers in a vehicle. One argument is that the court may reason that, similar to a traffic stop, passengers in a vehicle are subject to the observations made by a search.

On the other hand, a warrant requires probable cause and there is typically no probable cause with respect to passengers. Searches are limited to who and what is explicitly named in the warrant and passengers are most likely not named in a warrant.

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

The private use of a GPS device by an ordinary, or non-law enforcement, citizen is also a subject of debate. In general, an individual may use a GPS device to monitor another individual’s vehicle if:

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

However, it is most likely illegal to use the a GPS tracking device in situations when:

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

It is important to note that this is a general outline and may not apply in all states. The act of invading another individual’s privacy to install a GPS device may be considered a criminal act in itself.

In some states, the use of GPS devices without an individual’s consent are punishable under stalking laws.

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

GPS devices are newer technology and are changing every year. Because of this, the legality of their use may vary by state law and may change frequently.

In addition, federal courts are also split regarding how to handle the technology. If you have any issues, questions, or concerns related to using a GPS tracking device, it may be helpful to consult with a criminal lawyer.

A lawyer can provide you advice if you believe a GPS tracking device has been wrongfully used against you. Your attorney can explain the GPS laws in your state as well as what rights and remedies may be available to you.

If you are considering using a GPS device for personal use or for business use, your lawyer can advise you regarding the requirements in your state as well as how to do so legally.