Can the Police Track Drunk Drivers Using GPS?

Consensual use is okay but covert use is not.

What role does GPS (global positioning systems) have in law enforcement of DUI cases?

By the way, we're not referring to attempts by drunk drivers to blame their predicament on GPS directions. (In 2012, a Massachusetts woman consumed a half liter of vodka, ended up on a local golf club’ sand trap and blamed this --  her fourth DUI offense -- on a faulty GPS.) Nor are we talking about how GPS can be used to locate and save the life of a DUI offender who crashes in an unknown location (like the Pennsylvania man located by using GPS from his phone).

What we’re discussing is how and when law enforcement can track DUI offenders using GPS. Such devices have already been used in several California counties and are being considered by other local governments and state legislatures. The GPS devices in use in California are not real-time devices however. On a weekly basis, the driver on probation downloads information from the device into a computer. The probation officer monitors the data to see where the driver has traveled. If the driver visited a tavern, law enforcement can determine whether to take action and revoke probation.

Other possibilities for GPS?

Besides offering delayed or real-time tracking of convicted offenders, the GPS device can be affixed to the offender’s vehicle to track inconsistent driving and perhaps even disable the engine. Some GPS tracking systems can even be outfitted, like an interlock ignition device, with breathalyzers so that the driver has to furnish a blood alcohol content (BAC) reading before the car will start.

The Supreme Court’s Position on secret GPS monitoring

In January 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that the Government’s attachment of a GPS tracking device to a vehicle and its use of that device to monitor the vehicle’s movements on public streets constitutes a search under the Fourth Amendment (United States v. Jones). That ruling is unlikely to affect the adoption of GPS for drunk driving offenders. One reason is that the GPS installed in the Jones case, was done secretly, without the driver’s consent. That would not be the case in which a driver sought license reinstatement and consented to the GPS. However, that ruling does prevent the covert planting of GPS devices as was done on occasion by law enforcement seeking to crack down on DUIs.

In summary

Consensual use of GPS devices -- for example, when a probationer agrees to wear a GPS tracker in exchange for the right to retain driving rights -- are okay. Covert uses -- for example, if law enforcement installs a GPS device without your knowledge at a traffic stop -- are not permissible.

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