Friday, January 14, 2005

GPS tracking of suspects requires warrant, Washington court rules

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) - Police cannot attach a Global Positioning System tracker to a suspect's vehicle without a warrant, the Washington Supreme Court declared Thursday in the first such ruling in the nation.

The court, however, refused to overturn the murder conviction of William Bradley Jackson, who unknowingly led police to the shallow grave of his 9-year-old daughter in 1999. Spokane County deputies had a warrant for the GPS tracking device used in that case, although prosecutors argued they did not need one.

``Use of GPS tracking devices is a particularly intrusive method of surveillance, making it possible to acquire an enormous amount of personal information about the citizen under circumstances where the individual is unaware that every single vehicle trip taken and the duration of every single stop may be recorded by the government,'' Justice Barbara Madsen wrote in the unanimous decision

She raised the prospect of citizens being tracked to ``the strip club, the opera, the baseball game, the `wrong' side of town, the family planning clinic, the labor rally.''

The closely watched case had evoked worries about police using the satellite-tracking devices like Big Brother to watch citizens' every move.

Doug Honig, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, said the ruling is the first of its kind in the country.

Attaching a GPS device to a car is ``the equivalent of placing an invisible police officer in a person's back seat,'' Honig said. ``Our state constitution has very strong protections for privacy. Some other states also have very strong protections for privacy. This will be a strong precedent for them to look at and for any law enforcement agency around the country.''

Spokane County Deputy Prosecutor Kevin Korsmo pronounced himself satisfied that Jackson's conviction had been upheld.

But he said the court had expanded privacy rights for criminal suspects. He said that in previous cases involving surveillance by more conventional means, such as binoculars or the naked eye, the high court held that there was no right of privacy for what a person did out in public.

In the Jackson case, the murder defendant had sought to have the warrant thrown out, arguing that it was based on the slimmest of premises: If he was guilty, he might return to the scene of the crime.

Prosecutors contended that the warrant was proper and that they did not even need a warrant; they contended that the GPS was equivalent to tailing Jackson in an unmarked car.

The high court agreed the warrant was valid, but it rejected the comparison between the GPS device and tailing a suspect.

``The devices in this case were in place for approximately 2 1/2 weeks,'' Madsen wrote. ``It is unlikely that the sheriff's department could have successfully maintained uninterrupted 24-hour surveillance throughout this time by following Jackson.''

A call to Jackson's attorney was not immediately returned.

Jackson reported his daughter missing the day she died. He was arrested nearly a month later after investigators used the GPS system to map his routes to the burial site.

He acknowledged burying the body but denied killing the girl. He said he panicked after finding her body in her bed. His lawyers contended the girl, Valiree, died from an overdose of a prescription anti-depressant.

Prosecutors said Jackson smothered Valiree with a pillow because she did not get along with a woman he wanted to marry. He was convicted of murder and sentenced to 56 years in prison.
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