Monday, January 12, 2009

GPS evidence & Jurisdiction-Proponent & Opponent

In order to charge someone with a crime, or to join them in a lawsuit, the court you wish to bring to your aid (or the "peoples" aid, if you are a criminal victim) must have jurisdiction over the person. Black's Law Dictionary, Sixth Edition, defines jurisdiction as:
"A term of comprehensive import embracing every kind of judicial action. It is the power of the court to decide a matter in controversy and presupposes the existence of a duly constituted court with control over the subject matter and the parties. Jurisdiction defines the powers of courts to inquire into facts, apply the law, make decisions, and declare judgment. The legal right by which judges exercise their authority. It exists when court has cognizance of class of cases involved, proper parties are present, and point to be decided is within powers of court" (Paraphrased). In other words, the court has to have the authority before it can render a judgement.
While there are many different kinds of jurisdiction, one main way of establishing jurisdiction is geographic. For instance, usually if an auto accident happened within the boundaries of a state, its laws control how the case is handled, how damages are awarded, what time limits apply, what elements of damage are available, etc. While police usually can determine such things, in some border cities, things can get complicated. In Beloit, Wisconsin, at least one road runs right down the Wisconsin-Illinois border. How, then are head-on accidents handled? Under which state's rules? It depends on whether the center line is crossed, and who crossed it. GPS evidence can help. . . or, it may not have the accuracy to do more than muddle the question.
The stakes are higher in criminal cases. There have been cases where a murder occurred, and even the perpetrators did not know what state they were in when the murder occurred.
One state may have the death penalty, the other does not. How to prove where the murder occurred? Again, GPS evidence will help, if there is a GPS track available. Likely, the vehicle was stopped to dispose of the body, probably close to the place of the murder (especially if it is in a moving vehicle). GPS gives the timeline to show what happened when, including the stop of the car to dispose of the body, or erratic driving during a struggle.
However, there is a catch. Different rules may apply from one state to another about how GPS track evidence will be handled. Was the GPS unit attached in a state that doesn't require a warrant, but indicates the murder happened in a state that requires a warrant for GPS evidence admission? Or the converse, the GPS unit attached without a warrant in a state that requires one, but indicates the murder occurred within the borders where warrantless GPS attachment is allowed?
Finally, in this mobile society, we can imagine cases where GPS evidence will be offered of cross-country trips, for instance, to show how illegal aliens or illicit drugs were smuggled. If one of those states should bar the admission of GPS evidence, will the court of the state trying the charge have to exclude that portion of evidence for that state? Or will it admit that evidence, because the state trying the case allows such evidence? Will proponents have "holes" in their evidence that will defeat the case because of the differing treatment of GPS evidence?
Today, we have cross country trains, planes and trucks and cars that are recording the same GPS track evidence from one state to the next. Both the value and admissibility of that evidence may depend on the whims of the last appellate court to rule on GPS evidence handling, even though both quality and the methods of gathering the evidence is identical from state to state.
The catch-22 is, how can you use excluded GPS evidence to prove the GPS evidence should not be excluded? The only reasonable way I know would be an offer of proof. However, where two courts are battling over jurisdiction, and one rejects the GPS evidence on its face because of the manner of its collection, there will likely be no resolution short of an appeal to the highest courts.
A more rational system would be for the legislatures to adopt uniform laws for the states to follow, as has been done for child custody, the uniform commercial codes, etc., stating how and when GPS evidence will be handled in the types of situations that are likely to occur.
Getting back to jurisdiction, how can you prove you are in the wrong court if the court won't listen to your GPS evidence that you are in the wrong court? Or, how can you prove that the court has jurisdiction if the court won't view the evidence proving it has jurisdiction? The only answer I can come up with is, either uniform laws, or a pre-emptive federal law that will take GPS evidence-handling out of the hands of state governments.
There is rational for such regulation under the Commerce Clause-clearly, the GPS satellites in high earth orbit are outside any state jurisdiction. Furthermore, any GPS unit accessing those satellites must tune to frequencies that originate outside state boundaries for triangulation purposes. Jurisdictionally, this type of access is interstate commerce. Accordingly, at least for commerce and civil law purposes, GPS evidence should be able to be federally regulated, and not barred from admission in any state base on state law rulings. Like navigable waterways and other interstate commerce, free flow of GPS evidence will not only resolve jurisdictional conflicts but resolve cases more quickly, efficiently and with fewer judicial resources.

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