Friday, July 15, 2011

In New Jersey, Don't Use GPS to Find Your Mistress

In one of the first cases to allow such evidence to be used, the New Jersey Appellate Division last week allowed the use of data from a man's GPS device to be used in his divorce case.

The Appellate Division in Villanova v. Innovative Investigations, Inc., dismissed Mr. Villanova's claim of a violation of his right of privacy by a private investigator who suggested that Villanova's wife install a GPS device in a family vehicle to help track Villanova's travels.

As the Appellate Division noted, to track Mr. Villanova, his wife installed a GPS device in the glove compartment of the car that he frequently drove.  Mr. Villanova claimed, unsuccessfully, that he also used the car for his professional use as a corrections officer, which was discounted by the Appellate Division.  When his wife admitted to placing the GPS in his car, Mr. Villanova amended his divorce complaint to include the private investigator as a party to their divorce action.  When the divorce matter was finally resolved, the action against Mrs. Villanova for an invasion of his right of privacy was waived, but he retained his rights to sue the private investigator.

In his suit against the private investigator, Mr. Villanova claimed that the GPS intruded upon his "solitude and seclusion" and thus violated his right of privacy.  The private investigator's report detailed their actions, including surveillance of Mr. Villanova, attempts to find his alleged mistress at an address they had on file and following him and a female while they were driving in his car.  The Appellate Division noted that everything in the report occurred on "public roads" and not, as Mr. Villanova argued, in secluded places, and upheld the summary judgment dismissal of the claims against the private investigator.

The Appellate Division specifically held that
  • We hold that the placement of a GPS device in plaintiff's vehicle without his knowledge, but in the absence of evidence that he drove the vehicle into a private or secluded location that was out of public view and in which he had a legitimate expectation of privacy, does not constitute the tort of invasion of privacy.
In the end, it seems like Mrs. Villanova went a long way to attempt to prove that her husband was cheating on her.  It almost seems like a movie script, where the invisible GPS tracker is attached to the underside of a car so that James Bond can track down the bad guys.  But if courts are going to allow this kind of evidence to be submitted in cases, it will open up a whole new avenue for private investigators in a variety of matters.

This is reminiscent of back in 2001 when rental car companies hit the news with claims that they were utilizing the GPS in the rental cars to impose fines on drivers.  The data returned by the GPS indicated that the renters had been speeding and the rental car companies charged them for violations of their rental car agreements.

It seems like only a matter of time before the GPS chips in our cell phones are turned against us in the same way, especially since Apple seems to have already started the process.

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