Is GPS Tracking Legal? Understanding the Law behind Surveillance Activities

The Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution provides the “right of people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” However, if a court deems it necessary, search warrants may be issued and enforced as long as these are based on probable cause.

This matter is usually easy enough to interpret: any activity or object that potentially invades a person’s privacy can be considered illegal. However, there are certain situations –like monitoring your underage child’s whereabouts, for example – when GPS tracking is legal and perfectly acceptable.

There are also cases when resolving or settling lawsuits depend heavily on monitoring individuals and properties, covertly or otherwise. This brings to mind hiring private investigators or using GPS technology for surveillance. When is it legal to track someone via GPS? Is it okay to install a GPS tracking device on your spouse’s car? When can surveillance, technological or otherwise, be considered illegal?

Legal GPS Tracking
It’s entirely legal to install any form of GPS tracking devices on any vehicle and other assets that you own. This covers both personal and business properties – for instance, you are an employer who owns a fleet of cars – that might need monitoring. Other situations when it is considered legal to install GPS devices include tracking the location of your children under 18, tracing assets for legal repossession in case of a default on a loan, and monitoring owned assets that you suspect might be taken without permission.

In most states, it is also legal to put a GPS tracking device on your spouse’s vehicle, even without their consent, as long as it is owned jointly in both your names. If, however, it is undisputed that only your spouse ever drives the vehicle in question, it may be illegal for you to monitor its usage and current location via GPS. It may also be considered illegal to monitor a jointly owned vehicle if it violates your spouse’s reasonable expectations of privacy.

If you do not own the vehicle or any other asset that you want to track or monitor, you can still legally install a GPS tracking device provided that you have the permission of the owner. This includes any vehicle and other assets exclusively owned by your spouse. If you don’t have permission from the owner, installing any kind of GPS device will most likely be considered illegal or a form of stalking.

Depending on where you are in the United States, all of the above conditions will most likely change to include and/or exclude other scenarios.

Legal Surveillance
Technically speaking, surveillance of a person or property is legal as long as the methods used are legal as well. For example, hiring a private investigator does not inherently break any laws; however, if the private investigator commits any violation, say wiretapping a phone or trespassing onto private property, any information gathered through these illegal means may be inadmissible in court. The PI, and sometimes even the person who hired them, will also most likely face appropriate legal charges.

When it comes to law enforcement, different forms of surveillance may be applied to determine if a law has been violated, to identify the person or persons involved in the violation, and to legally prove that the person or persons are undeniably guilty of the violation. Most of the time, these reasons can overlap or can occur out of order, which may cause the subtlest differences that affect the outcome of a case as a result.

Laws about surveillance in federal, state, and local levels are continuously being reviewed and revised, especially with the prevalence of highly nuanced cases. The key thing to remember is that consent is important and surveillance activities are bound by the laws of the place where they are being conducted. Any information obtained through illegal means will most often be considered invalid.
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