The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts says using a GPS device to track a car is criminal harassment. The Boston Globe wrote “private citizens can not deploy GPS tracking devices to spy on people.”
The court did not limit its holding to private citizens. Judges agreed that a GPS tracker “would cause a reasonable person to suffer substantial emotional distress” and everybody should know this. Using a tracker “without justification or mitigation” can prove malicious intent.
The letter of the law requires a pattern of harassment. The SJC decided that didn’t really apply in GPS tracking cases. Planting a tracker and using it could be counted as a series of distinct acts. Each forseeable user of the car is a distinct victim. As long as somebody was “seriously alarmed” by at least one of the acts, the case can go ahead.
In recent years courts have said that a lot of routine surveillance violates your constitutional rights. Planting a GPS tracker in your car without a warrant, for example. I wonder how many police officers have criminally harassed people by unconstitutional tracking? How many private investigators? The Licensed Private Detective Association filed a brief arguing that its members and nobody else should be allowed to plant tracking devices. The court did not grant them an exemption.
I advocate tracking police like they track us. I used to wonder if somebody could be persuaded to stick a bunch of GPS trackers on police cars. Maybe a bad idea after this case. It’s hard to avoid leaving evidence pointing back to you. If one police officer claims to be alarmed watching the watchmen becomes a crime.
At least you would get a jury trial. I would be inclined to vote not guilty. I would also be dismissed from the jury pool for bias.
There’s a gold mine of data about your movements: locations aggregated from plate scans, your car’s navigation and support systems, cell phone towers, and more. If you’re upset because somebody got that information you may be a victim of criminal harassment. If the stalker is a police officer acting without a warrant, you may be a victim of criminal harassment.
So you’ve found somebody spying on you and you’re prepared to testify that you were seriously alarmed. Only one hurdle remains: persuading the prosecutor to take the case.
DAs who routinely overlook Fourth Amendment violations are not going to get upset about a little abuse of surveillance power. Whatever the letter of the law says, this is a tool for settling domestic disputes and maybe protecting police from people, not for protecting people from police.
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