Monday, November 28, 2011

“Who is watching you?”

Before a marriage ends, there is often a lack of trust. This can lead a spouse to take extreme measures, such as hiring an investigator to follow a spouse or tracking their movements with a GPS.  Although this is not exceedingly common, it occurred in a New Jersey case, Villanova v. Innovative Investigations, which warns of the dangers of tracking a spouse. 

In Villanova v. Innovative Investigations, the parties were married in 2000, and divorced in 2009. Before their divorce, wife suspected husband of infidelity and hired a private investigation company. The private investigator suggested that wife install a GPS tracking device in the parties' car to track husband’s movements. After purchasing a GPS device, wife placed the system in the vehicle that was jointly owned by parties and maintained for their personal use. Wife testified that the GPS system was only installed in the vehicle for 40 days. During those 40 days wife obtained online reports regarding the movement of the vehicle. However, nothing in the court record shows whether wife passed the information from these reports to investigators.

During the divorce proceedings, wife acknowledged that she placed a GPS device in husband’s vehicle. At that time, husband asserted a right to privacy defense against wife in the divorce action; however, it was later waived. 

Husband then brought suit against the private investigators claiming that the private investigation company invaded his privacy.

Investigators argued that the tracking of a vehicle on public roadways is not illegal because a driver has no expectation of privacy while in a car on a public roadway. In response, husband argued that often, locations are not within public view, therefore a certain level of privacy is expected. The court responded by agreeing that there is a level of privacy associated with certain areas, such as private parking lots; however,  husband was never in those locations. Next, husband claimed that because he is a police officer his movements should be held as private. The court again disagreed with husband, focusing on the fact that the vehicle was jointly owned by the parties and was intended for personal use. 

The court then focused on the right to privacy argument set forward by husband, who claimed that the GPS tracking device intruded on his solitude and seclusion, which resulted in a violation of his privacy. The right to privacy has been defined as the right of an individual to be “protected from any wrongful intrusion into his private life which would outrage or cause mental suffering, shame, or humiliation to a person of ordinary sensibilities.” 

The court held that there was no direct evidence that the GPS device recorded husband’s movement into a private area, and therefore there was no expectation of privacy. Further, there was no reasonable expectation of privacy in husband’s movements from one place to another. 

In short, the court held that under those specific circumstances it was not a breach of husband’s right to privacy.  However, he warned that it was a highly fact-specific decision.  If one detail had been different, the court may have come to a different decision.  For example, if only husband’s name was on the car or if he had driven to private property, then the court may have reached a different decision.  In short, you should consult with an attorney before taking any actions to avoid potential legal battles.

1 comment:

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