When is GPS a legal tool to use in private investigations?

Thomas Lauth, a private investigator, and owner of Lauth Investigations International provides private investigations services throughout the country with offices in Denver, Phoenix, and headquarters in Indianapolis, IN. When working in various states a private detective must remain knowledgeable of state laws in order to provide services that stay within parameters of state law and best serve the client. “Many private investigators find themselves in trouble and can compromise a case if they do not remain in compliance with state regulations, says Lauth. It is our duty to remain in compliance with local, state, and federal law to best serve and protect the client.State laws regulating the use of Global Positioning Systems (GPS) varies from state to state. Even law enforcement officials must adhere to state laws. GPS had been traditionally used by hikers, campers, hunters, aircraft, and in the military to navigate and maintain coordinates. GPS devices receive signals from satellites orbiting the earth and provide precise positioning using the Earth’s longitude and latitude.

A groundbreaking investigation of a missing child case in the late 1990’s may have been the catalyst for using GPS as an investigative tool for both law enforcement and private investigators. October 1999, nine-year-old Valerie Jackson vanished from her home in Spokane, WA. Police found bloodstains on the missing child’s bed and on her father, Brad Jackson’s shoes. The father of the missing third grader was an immediate suspect in the police investigation.

Police obtained warrants to search Jackson’s vehicles and returned them to Jackson with hidden GPS devices attached. Using satellite technology police then monitored Jackson for the next eighteen days. In November, when police went to the GPS coordinates that had tracked Jackson’s every move, they discovered two grave sites. At one location, they found an empty gravesite approximately 10 miles from the family’s residence. The second location approximately 50 miles northwest of Spokane they found a second gravesite containing Valerie’s remains.

By utilizing GPS surveillance, police were able to provide information to the prosecution indicating Jackson had murdered Valerie, buried her at one location, then exhumed her body and reburied her in a remote site further away. Police charged Jackson with first-degree murder of his daughter. Utilizing GPS in an investigation by law enforcement and private investigators and the potential of misuse violating individual’s constitutional rights has raised some issues. How far can one go to solve a case?

Colorado law specifies use of GPS and other surveillance tools to track a person or vehicle can be used as long as the purpose for using the tracking technology is legal. For example, many companies utilize GPS on company vehicles to ensure the employee is not using the vehicle for personal use. It is commonplace in the trucking industry. However, a spouse placing a GPS device to track their partner’s activities is considered illegal and constitutes stalking if the device is placed on the other person’s vehicle without their knowledge or consent.

In February 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court (U.S. vs. Jones), unanimously voted that even police must obtain a search warrant before using GPS to track criminal suspects in Arizona and throughout the country. Antoine Jones was suspected in drug trafficking and police obtained a warrant and tracked his activity for 28 days. Using GPS, authorities were able to locate the location where they found $850,000 in cash, 97 kilograms of cocaine, and 1 kilogram of crack stashed away in the suburban home. Jones was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for drug-related charges. Later, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction in a landmark decision based upon the fact the warrant police used had expired.

Two major issues were a factor in the U.S. Supreme Court decision. First, it was determined authorities violated the Fourth Amendment, that guarantees the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, paper, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures. They determined the installation of GPS tracking technology constituted an illegal “search” because authorities were physically occupying a private property for the purpose of obtaining information.

Second, judges analyzed the individual’s right to privacy and sustained tracking. While limited tracking may be permissible, long-term tracking was determined technical trespass. Justice Sotomayor wrote, “It may be necessary to reconsider the premise that an individual has no reasonable expectation of privacy in information voluntarily disclosed to third parties. This approach is ill-suited to the digital age, in which people reveal a great deal of information about themselves to third parties in the course of carrying out mundane tasks. People disclose the phone numbers that they dial or text to their cellular providers; the URLs that they visit and the e-mail addresses with which they correspond to their Internet service providers; and the books, groceries, and medications they purchase to online retailers.”

“While GPS can be an incredible investigative tool, there is a fine line between intrusion and privacy that every private investigator must adhere to,” Lauth says. Whether you are an Indiana PI, Colorado PI, Arizona PI or Timbuktu we all must adhere to standards that protect the citizen and serve our clients.

About the Author: Kym L. Pasqualini is the founder of the National Missing Children Organization in 1994 and the National Center for Missing Adults in 2000. Kym is an expert in the field of missing persons and continues to advocate for crime victims utilizing 20 years experience working with government officials, law enforcement, advocates, private investigators, and national media.

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