For months, police trying to solve a Long Island robbery spree had little evidence to identify a man in a hoodie and black ski mask holding up one gas station or convenience store after another until he made off with a stack of bills that investigators had secretly embedded with a GPS tracking device. Within days, reports the Associated Press, a suspect accused of pulling off nearly a dozen heists was behind bars. GPS is now used “as a matter of course in our investigations,” said Nassau County Police Chief Steven Skrynecki. The tiny satellite-connected devices, embedded by the manufacturer or slipped by police into stacks of cash, pill bottles or other commonly stolen items, are raising questions from legal experts over what they see as the potential for abuse by law enforcement authorities.
In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court set constitutional boundaries on the police practice of planting GPS trackers on suspects’ vehicles to monitor their movements. It stopped short of saying a warrant is always required. That narrow ruling didn’t address the embedding of GPS devices pre-emptively in objects that are apt to be stolen. Nor did it address how long police can engage in tracking or how they can use that information. That has left judges with little guidance. “This is the latest chapter in the challenge to the Fourth Amendment by new technology,” said George Washington University law Prof. Jonathan Turley. “There is always a concern technology can outstrip existing constitutional law. Now it’s up to the courts to decide when police departments can use this technology to facilitate an arrest and prosecution.”