Police can use a GPS device to track the movements of a suspect’s vehicle without first obtaining a warrant, the Virginia Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday.
The court held that police did not violate the privacy rights of David L. Foltz, a suspect in a series of sexual assaults, when they placed a GPS on the bumper of his vehicle.
In upholding Foltz’s conviction on charges of abduction with intent to defile, the appeals court weighed in on the hot-button issue of how the Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable searches and seizures regulates police use of technology.
The appeals court said Foltz had no expectation of privacy on a public street.
Police suspected Foltz, a convicted rapist, in a series of attacks on women in Fairfax County when they placed the GPS on the van he drove for work while it was parked on a public street on Feb. 1, 2008.
Police said the GPS placed Foltz near the scene of a sexual assault and officers began physically following him the next day. He was apprehended during an attempted assault Feb. 6.
Judge Randolph A. Beales wrote in the opinion that “police used the GPS device to crack this case by tracking the appellant on the public roadways — which they could, of course, do in person any day of the week at any hour without obtaining a warrant.”
The GPS, he wrote, “did not provide a substitute for police behavior that would have otherwise violated a recognized right to privacy.”
Christopher Leibig, Foltz’s attorney, did not respond to a request for comment.
The privacy issue with such technology is the ease of tracking someone, said Barbara Armacost, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law.
“Police can’t physically track someone for a year, but they could with GPS,” Armacost said.
Federal appeals courts are divided, meaning the issue could head to the Supreme Court.
This year, the Ninth Circuit in California ruled that a GPS device on a vehicle wasn’t a Fourth Amendment violation, but the D.C. Circuit held that it was.
The Foltz case — with the defendant already suspected by police and tracking that quickly led to an arrest — isn’t a good example for GPS opponents. A better case challenging the technology, Armacost said, would involve sustained surveillance or give police information they couldn’t obtain elsewhere.
“This is the poster child for why you’d want to give police this authority,” U.Va. law professor Anne Coughlin said.