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Using GPS Tracking Devices in Private Investigations

  • May 15, 2017
  • by Stephanie Irvine
  • Articles

For private investigators, GPS tracking technology is an invaluable asset when it comes to surveillance. Not only does it provide concrete evidence for private investigators, but GPS tracking devices are safe, efficient, and cost-effective. In a sense, it has revolutionized the way that PIs do business.

However, some private investigators are hesitant to use the groundbreaking technology in fear of legal repercussions. Despite the fact that many states do not have any laws on the books explicitly prohibiting the use of GPS, and federal laws are relatively ambiguous, private investigators are open season for being sued. The outcome, as past cases have shown, is realistically a crapshoot. This leaves private investigators to use the incredibly useful technology at their own risk.

Using GPS Tracking Devices

Though the private investigation industry has a longstanding history as a legitimate field with private investigation businesses existing since the 1800s, it has changed as tools and resources for investigation has evolved. For private investigators, the reasons to surveil an individual are nearly limitless — investigations can arise out of criminal or civil matters, and GPS technology provides concrete evidence for private investigators hired to conduct surveillance.

Whereas in years past, surveillance would have to take place in person with a private eye watching from a distance, perhaps taking pictures or video, GPS allows investigators to handle the job without the personal intrusion of being watched and followed in person.

GPS devices, which are relatively small in size, can be affixed to the exterior of a vehicle without altering the vehicle. The device then sends data to a host about where it has traveled using the satellite.

For investigators, GPS technology not only provides concrete evidence, but it also provides a safer way to conduct surveillance. Private investigator Eric Echols explained, “In today’s society, people are more apt to pull a weapon in fear that someone is following them. The next thing you know, you’ve got a problem. I think that GPS is a needed tool for PIs.”

With our society becoming fearful and more hostile, as evidenced by increasing gun violence, it’s no wonder that PIs are opting to surveil from the office with the help of GPS tracking devices. It gives private investigators the safety that they need, as well as the information that they were hired to obtain.

Additionally, GPS devices provide an economical alternative for surveillance. For example, in larger cities where traffic and other visible obstructions may be present, an individual hiring a private investigator may, in fact, need multiple investigators to be able to perform the surveillance. This would result in much higher fees than a daily or weekly rate for the monitoring of a GPS device.

Furthermore, GPS devices give private investigators the ability to multitask and complete other tasks while still completing surveillance. GPS devices can also be programmed to only activate and transmit a signal when at a targeted location.

GPS Win in Georgia

Recently in Georgia, a jury ruled in favor of Eric and Patricia Echols’ private investigation business, TFP Company, LLC. The ruling solidified that the use of GPS on the outside of a vehicle, when attached in a public place, was not an invasion of privacy.

The decision stems from a lawsuit filed in July 2015 by Melissa Atkins and her legal team alleging that the Echols’ private investigation company had trespassed, violated her right to privacy, and inflicted intentional emotional distress. Atkins and her legal team were seeking punitive damages, as well as legal fees to be paid by TFP.

Echols’ investigation company was conducting surveillance after being hired by Michelle Lewis, who is Robert Lewis’ now ex-wife, to surveil Atkins on the suspicion of having an affair with Robert. Both couples were in the midst of divorce. It was during the course of that investigation that the Echols’ investigation company used a GPS tracking device to conduct surveillance.

The GPS tracking device was attached to Atkins’ vehicle in a public place, without trespassing, and without her knowledge. However, because it was only tracking the vehicle, and the vehicle was only used on public roads, visible to anyone in the general public and even street cameras, the jury found that it was not an invasion of privacy.

Furthermore, private citizens, including private investigators, are not bound by the legal requirement to obtain a search warrant. They are free to observe the actions of another in a public place, but this does not mean that the observation and surveillance can be reckless: private citizens are prohibited from engaging in stalking behavior, as anti-stalking laws are on the books in Georgia.

Despite the jury’s ruling in favor of private investigators and in the defense, Atkins was not satisfied, and filed a motion for a new trial on April 3, 2017, citing a violation of the rules of evidence, discovery, and specific Court Orders. The case is ongoing.

Supreme Court Rulings on GPS

The 2015 certiorari Supreme Court ruling of Torrey Dale Grady v. North Carolina established that under the Fourth Amendment, the use of a GPS tracking device constitutes a search. In this situation, the case was remanded back to trial court to determine whether or not the search was unreasonable or unwarranted, as the Fourth Amendment only prohibits unreasonable and unwarranted searches.

The 2011 case, United States v. Jones, which was delivered by Justice Antonin Scalia, asserted that the unwarranted installation of a GPS tracking devices did, in fact, constitute an unlawful search. Despite this, the 2015 ruling cites that the nature of the search cannot be a blanket determination, as there are situations in which a search is warranted. Thus, the Supreme Court did not make an official ruling on whether or not affixing a GPS tracking device is a violation of an individual’s privacy.

State Legislature’s Decision

Ultimately, the lack of a clear and steadfast ruling on the use of GPS tracking devices means that it is up to state legislatures to make decisions for their state. For private investigators in Georgia, it remains a situation of tracking at your own risk.

When considering an individual’s right to privacy, state legislatures have to evaluate whether or not the use of a GPS device infringes upon that right. When considering privacy, it is important to consider that nothing stops someone from being surveilled at a distance in person in public places, such as on the road.

When asked about the lack of continuity and clear legislation from our governments, Echols commented that “The problem is that the laws aren’t caught up with the technology. In Georgia, there are no laws prohibiting the use of GPS tracking devices. A bill came to Georgia, and it didn’t pass. It should’ve been written to exempt law enforcement and private investigators.”

Echols’ sentiment echoed that of Judge Leonard in his order denying a summary judgment in favor of the defendant. Judge Leonard stated that “This case represents a classic situation where our jurisprudence and legislation have not kept up with rapidly-changing technology that is widely available and cheaply obtained. This Court invites the Georgia General Assembly to take up this issue of GPS tracking in a healthy debate and potentially pass legislation that it deems necessary [...].”

Echols proposed a solution to the legal mess of ambiguity: “Since the federal law isn’t clear, that’s why you see different states doing different things. The lawmakers need to make an exemption for law enforcement and PIs, such as in North Carolina, and with that exemption, there has to be a bonafide case that can be proven with a contract that you were hired. This way it wouldn’t just be anyone [using GPS devices], and it would require PIs to show some restraint. PIs should be able to put [GPS device] on without going onto or into a person’s property.”

Future of GPS for Private Investigators

What is clear out of all this is that state and federal governments need to get up to speed with current technology and determine what is fair and appropriate after considering all the facts.

With each case relating to the topic of GPS surveillance seemingly having a unique and independent outcome, there is no way to determine if private investigators would face legal repercussions (and what those repercussions could be) by employing the use of GPS devices to assist them in doing their job.

By not setting a standard on a recurring issue that affects the livelihood of private investigators and the rights as citizens of the United States, the United States government is doing a disservice to its citizens. After all, we as a society abide by laws within a legal system, and by not having laws set in place, how can we function?

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