Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Economics of GPS Evidence

Government and law enforcement budgets are being slashed. At the same time, local and government law enforcement agencies are not only expected to enforce pre-9/11 laws, they are the first line of defense against domestic and foreign terrorists. Add to this the kind of crime increases that are coupled with unemployment (property crimes, child abuse and domestic violence) and our law enforcement bodies have their hands full.

What does it take to adjudicate a crime, in terms of resources and dollars? The cost to adjudicate a criminal (or for that matter civil) case is directly proportional to the quality and credibility of the admissible evidence presented:

  1. Marginal evidence of crime probably takes the least judicial resources, because no prosecution ever takes place. However, where it is certain a crime has been committed (for instance, an unsolved murder) an uncertain case continues to take law enforcement resources, with attempts to solve the crime continuing throughout the years. Where police need to investigate if a crime was committed (for example, an unexplained disappearance with no body) law enforcement has to weigh the wisdom of investigating a possible crime with pursuing solutions to verified crimes.

  2. Evidence of either a certain crime and uncertain perpetrator, or certain perpetrator and uncertain evidence of crime take the most resources. These cases are the most likely to go to trial and most likely to involve large blocks of investigative time.

  3. With certain evidence and a certain perpetrator, the case will likely settle, although some perpetrators insist on a trial. Here, the measure of resources will be determined by how much evidence the prosecution must present to the finder of fact before satisfying the criminal burdens of proof. High quality evidence that is easy to present is the best kind of evidence.

No alleged crime investigation and prosecution stands alone-all investigations are only as good as the totality of enforcement and prosecutorial resources that can be bought to bear on a specific alleged crime in relation to all the other alleged crimes before those enforcers and prosecutors at a given time.

Evidence of crime will be judged by three audiences before a guilty verdict is rendered:

1) the suspect (Is there enough evidence, and is it believable) enough here I should take a deal and plead guilty?) 2)The officer-prosecutor (Is there sufficient credible evidence to convict beyond a reasonable doubt?) 3) The jury (Is the suspect guilty beyond a reasonable doubt?)

At one time, the eyewitness identification was the “gold standard” of high quality evidence. However, scientific testing of the general publics' observational abilities has shown eyewitness testimony is actually poor proof of criminal identification. Fingerprint evidence, still valid and high quality, is only useful where the accused is a stranger either to the environment or the particular evidence in question. DNA evidence, the new gold standard, is useful, but only under the same circumstances. DNA evidence, in addition, must go through expensive and extensive testing, often at overworked State crime labs.

How would widespread GPS evidence investigation save money, time and resources in criminal investigation and prosecution while resolving more cases and solving more crimes?

Real police work involves asking questions and interviewing people. Surveillance, however, involves waiting for hours (often with several officers) for a single event or occurrence, or high risk tailing, that is, following a suspect without the suspect detecting law enforcement presence. Both involve high numbers of officers and high hours. GPS tracking evidence, while not replacing surveillance, can focus surveillance in such a way that police can mount surveillance at known suspect destinations, and often at very specific times.

GPS evidence tracks are high quality, credible evidence, to all the audiences above.

  • GPS evidence needs very little “processing” and will be available during the investigative stage (as opposed to DNA, which may take months to process.)

  • GPS evidence is straightforward, easily displayed and explained, and extremely persuasive. While fingerprints and DNA can be explained to a jury, a jury can watch a GPS track map display from a suspect's home or last identified location right to a crime scene. A guilty suspect in an interrogation room will see this immediately, and start looking for the best plea bargain possible.

  • Indeed, some GPS evidence is available in “real time”, allowing police to either actually prevent a crime or catch a perpetrator in the criminal act, something DNA will never do.

  • GPS tracking is “cheap”-although individual GPS units might be somewhat pricey, each unit is probably less than a batch of DNA tests. GPS units are certainly cheaper than the payroll of the officers, prosecutors, court personnel and judges that less certain "marginal" evidence requires to get the same results.

  • GPS tracking evidence frees law enforcement from time consuming surveillance tasks, letting them concentrate on real police work. Remember, hours saved in one case are hours that can be devoted to other cases.

  • Finally, the quality, accuracy and persuasive force of GPS evidence resolves cases short of trial. Because it is simple and easily understood, even the most hardened criminal knows he won't have a chance with a jury when they see a track of him pulling up before the house where the rape occurred, the arson happened, or outside his ex-spouses house he was stalking. Suspects will plead guilty. Prosecutors and officers can concentrate on other crimes.

  • Previously unsolvable crimes will be solved by GPS evidence. GPS evidence is already solving crimes like remote forest fire arson, where surveillance is impossible (because it would be spotted.) Just because these cases were unsolvable doesn't mean law enforcement didn't try, using time, money & resources.

  • Given the incarceration of repeat offenders, and the possibility of detection by GPS tracking, the more GPS tracking is used, the more crime will decline. Declining enforcement and prosecutorial commitments allows more investigative scrutiny of the remaining crime, thus increasing a criminal's risk of detection, and lower crime rates. Increasing prosecutorial pressure will mean longer criminal sentences, greater enforcement pressure, and again, greater risk for the criminals-which translates to a lower crime rate.

  • Very few types of evidence can exonerate a suspect. GPS evidence can. For instance, if police have narrowed possible suspects to three people, and use GPS tracking on all three. Two have tracks that show they were no where near the crime scene; and one suspect does. No further resources need to be devoted to those exonerated suspects.

For all these efficiencies, I have to restate that GPS evidence does not solve crimes, it only narrows the relevant questions to a specific geographic area for a specific time frame, raising questions that the guilty can't answer, but the innocent can. However, because both the geographic time frame and time line are so specific, guilty suspects will know they have no chance, and plead guilty.


Legislatures must act quickly to regulate GPS tracking so that the court system will not exclude GPS evidence based on faulty- Fourth amendment analysis. Economically, its only rational to preserve this valuable investigative tool that convicts the guilty and exonerates the innocent-for pennies compared to previous investigative methods.


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