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US federal judge’s ruling on GPS worries privacy advocates

Cops without a warrant can secretly attach GPS devices to a suspect’s vehicle, according to a federal judge – who said using the gadgets is virtually the same thing as following a car along a road.

The decision handed down by U.S. Judge David Hurd in upstate Utica last week could give law enforcement officials another high-tech weapon to catch criminals, but is troubling to privacy advocates.

Hurd ruled that Robert (Bugsy) Moran, a Hell’s Angels member and defense attorney accused of conspiring to distribute methamphetamine, had “no expectation of privacy in the whereabouts of his vehicle on a public roadway.”

“Law enforcement personnel could have conducted a visual surveillance of the vehicle as it traveled on the public highways,” Hurd wrote.

Assistant U.S. Attorney David Grable, who is prosecuting Moran, strongly backed the ruling. “Your movements on a highway aren’t private,” he said. “You don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy, which is a Fourth Amendment test.”

But civil liberties advocates said the decision opens the door to increased government surveillance. Miniature GPS receivers are now available for about $1,000 and can be affixed to the undercarriage of vehicles in minutes.

Hurd’s ruling is only binding in his upstate courtroom, said law Prof. Barry Kamins, but other judges will likely consult it.

“It’s kinda scary,” said Christopher Dunn, associate legal director of the New York City Liberties Union. “If this ruling applied to New York City, the NYPD would be free to go out and attach these devices to cars and track people without any showing of wrongdoing.”