Wisconsin Upholds Warrantless GPS Tracking By Cops

Fight disinformation. Get a daily recap of the facts that matter. Sign up for the free Mother Jones newsletter.

From the Chicago Trib:

Wisconsin police can attach GPS to cars to secretly track anybody’s movements without obtaining search warrants, an appeals court ruled Thursday.

However, the District 4 Court of Appeals said it was “more than a little troubled” by that conclusion and asked Wisconsin lawmakers to regulate GPS use to protect against abuse by police and private individuals.

As the law currently stands, the court said police can mount GPS on cars to track people without violating their constitutional rights—even if the drivers aren’t suspects.

Officers do not need to get warrants beforehand because GPS tracking does not involve a search or a seizure, Judge Paul Lundsten wrote for the unanimous three-judge panel based in Madison.

The facts and legal analysis of this case read just like the kind of law school ‘hypo’ I sweated so hard over.

Here’s what happened:

The cops attached a GPS device to the car of some loser suspected of stalking a woman. Turns out he was and, after five weeks of tracking, cops got a warrant; inside his home was more proof. He’s in prison now. Of course, he’s appealing on Fourth Amendment grounds (unreasonable search and seizure). Note that he isn’t arguing that he didn’t actually terrorize the woman. Asshat. The court held that, among other things, the cops just remotely acquired evidence they could have obtained by other means (i.e. surveillance).

Man, this case sucks. My first response was a firm grasp of my ACLU card and a Mapquest query to find out where I could go to man the barricades. Then I got to the stalking part. Cheap shot, that: Who wants a probable stalker to go free when a tiny little device no bigger than a slim phone would save the cops—and the victim—so much time and worry. But it starts with a defendant who’s easy to hate and ends up with the Muslim guy down the block who’s just going about his business but has friends back in Iraq. Or the roommate of a suspected drug dealer or…you get the drift.

I see a big, big potential for misuse here but also a hugely efficient tool for law enforcement. But the main question is: Why don’t they just ask for a warrant? If they have enough evidence to expend the resources involved staking out your place til you leave and ponying up what can’t be an unlimited supply of trackers, then analyzing the data—surely that’s enough for a warrant? And what happens to the tracking info if you’re eventually cleared or never charged—what if you’re going through a messy divorce and your ex finds out about the GPS tracking?

I can see this one finding its way onto a great many Constitutional Law exams.

We Recommend


Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.