In May, 2009, a Wisconsin man experienced a violation of privacy that should concern anyone who has a basic level of respect for the U.S. Constitution. Judge Paul Lundsten, a District 4 Court of Appeals judge, ruled that Madison Police did not violate the U.S. Constitution’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures when they secretly attached a GPS system to Michael Sveum’s car then retrieved it several days later, downloaded the information, and investigated the car’s whereabouts. Sveum argued that this action was a violation of the Fourth Amendment but Judge Lundsten felt otherwise. He even ruled that actions like this could take place without a search warrant.
As expected, this action has raised many concerns about privacy rights and the overreaching arm of the law. Lundsten concluded that tracking someone’s movements via GPS is no different from visual surveillance, which is a legal. It was also legal, according to Lundsten, for the police to secretly attach the GPS to Sveum’s vehicle because they attached it to his car while it was parked in the driveway. A driveway is considered a public place, and therefore no violation of privacy had occurred.
Rulings like this raise many important questions about constitutional rights, the public safety, and how much power police should be granted in order to fulfill their duties. Should the police be given the power to spy on others without a warrant? Some would argue that law enforement already has the right to watch whomever they choose. However, does that mean we, as a society, should allow police the ability to secretly attach tracking devices to our vehicles? If this is legal, then what will come next? Civil rights activists worry that this is only the beginning because once we allow law enforcement the right to attach tracking devices to our vehicles, it is only a matter of time until they try to track us in other ways, including through the internet, on our person, and ultimately, inside our own homes.
Many worry that civil liberties and the right to privacy are going by the wayside and some fear that the United States Constitution is becoming a document of wishful thoughts rather than the supreme law that the Founding Fathers intended. Almost daily, we hear about the loss of rights we once took for granted, usually under the pretense of “safety”, “public interest”, or some other dubious claim.
There is another side to this issue, of course. Public safety, some will argue, is enhanced when we allow actions like this to take place. If we permit law enforcement to track the whereabouts of potentially dangerous criminals, then policemen might be able to prevent a serious crime from taking place. Warrants can take time to obtain and during the waiting period, a crime might take place that otherwise could have been prevented. Constitutionalists respond strongly to this way of thinking, pointing out that the basic rights of individuals should never be compromised for the gain of temporary safety. Corrupt law enforcement can create a phony safety concern, if necessary, and use it to violate individual rights. This concern isn’t as far- fetched as it sounds and in many parts of the world, law enforcement and governing bodies have already used the premise of safety to justify erosion of basic rights. It has happened in other countries and it can happen in the United States, too.
Wanting to protect the public at large from dangerous criminals is one thing, but what if doing so involves surveillance and other violations of privacy? Where do we draw the line between public interest and the U.S. Constitution? Today, the issue involves a GPS, but it could be something far more serious tomorrow.