When Worlds Collide

I spend about 1/3 of my daily reading on professional (read: legal and financial) materials, 1/3 on news, and 1/3 on tech/miscellaneous. This blog represents stories from each of those slices, though the three remain largely distinct. So imagine my surprise when www.Gizmodo.com, my tech blog of choice, blogged a story out of Wisconsin about GPS and the Fourth Amendment.

Wisconsin cops wanted to track a suspected stalker, so they attached GPS to his car while it was parked in his driveway and recorded it for five weeks. Thing is, they didn't have a warrant. The defendant cried foul under the Fourth Amendment (search & seizure), but the court (and the court of appeals) thought otherwise. The 3-judge panel unanimously held that police didn't need a warrant to obtain what they could have otherwise obtained by public suveillance. You only need a warrant to enter a location where the suspect would have an expectation of privacy, such as a home or office. To their credit, the jurists were uncomfortable with this result and requested that lawmakers consider limiting the practice. After all, police can slap hundreds of these bugs on trains, planes, and automobiles and track them all at one terminal, greatly increasing their surveillance capacity. Sure, it makes catching bad guys a cinch, but it also has a bit of that detached, big-brother quality that makes us all a wee bit uncomfortable. (Not Justice Scalia, of course).

The ironies of this story are not lost on me. First, defendant here complained that the police should not be allowed to do to him what he was doing to the woman he was stalking, and, second, how is it illegal for a private citizen to track another's movements in public when police can do exactly the same thing without a warrant? (The second point is actually moot; stalking usually requires that the party have intent to cause alarm and does, in fact, cause alarm - from CT).

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