The use of GPS trackers in an official, law enforcement capacity is certainly nothing new. Police departments around the world have been using them for years. Sometimes they’re placed on a suspect’s vehicle by the court, like in a “house arrest” situation where officials want to make sure that someone isn’t going anywhere they shouldn’t be. Other times, they’re used for covert surveillance, like when investigators want to stay in-the-loop about the activities of someone who is involved in a particular crime.

While many people are well aware that the law is in favor of the use of these devices in the first place, what is decidedly less clear are the consequences of tampering with one should you find a GPS tracker installed on your vehicle. This particular issue shot to the forefront of the public consciousness in an interesting way in Ohio recently in a case that will have significant ramifications moving forward.

GPS Tracking and the Case of James Manley

In April of 2017, police in the Columbus, Ohio area installed a GPS tracking device in the truck of a murder victim’s brother. Law enforcement officials went to court to obtain a warrant for the legal installation of the device, but the man, 40-year-old James Manley of Ohio, was never informed. Manley discovered the device a week later and promptly destroyed it – a move that he would quickly come to regret.

After turning himself in and being jailed, the judge set his bond at $80,000 because he had destroyed an official piece of police equipment. When asked about the specifics of this case by a local Columbus newspaper, a professor of law at The Ohio State University said that the police absolutely have a case – provided that they can prove a few key things.

First, the police will need to be able to show that Manley did know exactly what the device was and that it was collecting information for an investigation at the time he destroyed it. They’ll also need to prove that he destroyed the GPS tracker with the specific intention of impeding that investigation in any way that he could. But the professor says that none of this will matter if police don’t have a search warrant from the court approving the use of the GPS tracker in the first place.

In order to get such a warrant, police would have to show probable cause that Manley was either about to commit a crime or had already committed one and that the GPS tracker would lead to the collection of evidence essential to an ongoing investigation.

The History of GPS Tracking and Law Enforcement

Technology and the law have always had something of a give-and-take relationship, as cases like this go a long way toward proving. Generally speaking, technology tends to evolve much faster than the law does, and the official police use of GPS tracking tech has been subject to a significant amount of controversy for as long as the practice has been around.

Up until 2012, police could essentially put any type of GPS device on a suspect’s car that they wanted without going through any official channels. They didn’t even have to go to court to get a warrant. Then, the United States Supreme Court ruled that installing a GPS tracker on a person, a car or any other personal item counted as a search – whether the person knew about the existence of the tracker didn’t matter at all. Because of this ruling, it meant GPS technology officially became subject to Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.

That ruling was hotly debated, but it was upheld (once again by the Supreme Court) in 2015. Now, police have to go to court and get an official court authorization BEFORE they can use GPS devices. This is especially true in situations where surveillance will be conducted on an ongoing basis. This explains why the penalties for tampering with police GPS trackers are so severe.