We’ve all used GPS technology to make life easier. Whether in our cars or on our phones, Global Positioning System technology allows us to pinpoint our location on a map and track where we’ve been. Now, in addition to having already replaced maps, GPS may be replacing expert witnesses in some circumstances.In cases where a disputed fact concerns the location of a person or vehicle at a particular time, expert testimony was necessary. Now, however, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit has ruled that because of GPS technology’s intrinsic accuracy, satellite data can be used to determine location in litigation. In the case before that Court, a bank teller placed a GPS tracking device in the stack of bills demanded by a bank robber. Following the tracking device, police apprehended a man fitting the robber’s description, located the cash that had been stolen from the bank, found items of clothing resembling those worn during the robbery, and located the vehicle that the robber had used to flee the bank. Despite the defendant’s objection to the admission of GPS tracking data into evidence, the trial court not only admitted the data, but took judicial notice of its reliability and accuracy. The Eighth Circuit affirmed the trial court’s decision.
Because judicial notice allows a court to accept as a true a fact that is so well-known or authoritatively tested that it cannot reasonably be doubted, the fact that federal courts have begun to take judicial notice of the accuracy of GPS tracking data is an important step for plaintiffs and alarming for defendants. While some critics of this decision point to the fact that GPS signals can be lost in buildings or tunnels, and individual tracking devices may be unreliable, others assert that even where a tracking device is reliable, it may pose serious constitutional concerns, raising Fourth Amendment questions.
Parties litigating cases that involve GPS evidence shouldn’t simply rely on the fact that it will be admissible no matter what, however. Especially in bigger cases, where the parties have the resources to do a thorough job, parties should be prepared to address not only the accuracy of GPS in general, but the accuracy of the particular device used in the situation.