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Court upholds tracking suspects with GPS

A convicted sex offender being tracked as a suspect in a string of sexual assaults, did not have his rights violated when Fairfax police secretly placed a global positioning system (GPS) device on his vehicle without a warrant, the Virginia Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday.

After 11 attacks on women in eastern Fairfax County in 2008, many in the Falls Church area, detectives zeroed in on David L. Foltz because he lived in the area and was previously convicted of rape. He had served 17 years in prison and was released in 2007.

Detectives placed a GPS device inside the bumper of a van he used for work, which was parked on the street in front of his house. The device later showed that Foltz had been near one of the attacks.

Police then decided to follow Foltz, with the help of the GPS device, and actually witnessed him tackle and drag a woman. He was arrested, convicted of abduction with intent to defile and given a mandatory life sentence for his second felony sex offense.

Foltz's lawyers, Christopher Leibig and Andrea Moseley of Alexandria, challenged the use of the GPS in hearings before Foltz's trial, raised the issue again in his appeal. But the opinion, written by Judge Randolph A. Beales, concluded that "the police used the GPS device to crack this case by tracking appellant on the public roadways – which they could, of course, do in person any day of the week at any hour without obtaining a warrant."

Beales also wrote that "The fact that the police used technology to follow the van’s movements on public streets, therefore, did not somehow invade appellant’s recognized
privacy interests because the GPS did not act as a substitute for unconstitutional police action."

Two federal cases on the GPS issue reached different conclusions, meaning that the question may be headed for the U.S. Supreme Court. In January, a federal appeals court in California ruled that the use of a GPS on an Oregon man's vehicle was not a violation of the Fourth Amendment's holding against unreasonable search and seizure. But last month, a D.C. appeals court ruled that such GPS use was a Fourth Amendment violation.

-- Tom Jackman

By Tom Jackman  |  September 7, 2010; 2:31 PM ET
Categories:  Fairfax , Falls Church , From the Courthouse , Technology , Tom Jackman , Updates  
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