Secretly Attaching a GPS Monitor to Another’s Car Can Lead to Criminal Charges in Massachusetts

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today ruled there was probable cause to charge a man with criminal harassment after he allegedly attached GPS monitors to the cars belonging to a married couple he had never met.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Brennan

The defendant was charged in a Hingham District Court complaint with two counts of criminal harassment.  According to the police report, a man discovered a GPS monitor attached to the underside of his wife’s car in May of 2016.  He filed a report with the local police department, which advised him to check his own vehicle.  The man discovered a second GPS monitor located on his car.  A police investigation was unable to determine who had placed the monitors on the couple’s cars.  However, the man was a member of the United States Coast Guard, and he reported the case to the Guard’s investigative service.  The Coast Guard served a subpoena on the GPS manufacturer and learned the defendant had purchased the monitoring devices.  Law enforcement officials interviewed the defendant, who initially denied knowing how the GPS devices were placed on the victims’ cars.  However, the defendant later made vague allegations that the man was cheating on his wife and news reports indicated the defendant believed the man was having an affair with his wife.  The defendant ultimately admitted he was monitoring the couple’s movements by using the GPS devices, which were synced with his iPhone and laptop.  The police obtained a warrant to search the defendant’s iPhone and learned he had repeatedly obtained the couple’s locations over the course of 10 days.  The man whose car was being monitored denied he was having an affair, and the police found no evidence of an affair.  The couple told the police they were alarmed by the defendant’s conduct and had installed security cameras at their home in response.  The defendant filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing that his alleged conduct did not satisfy the elements of the criminal harassment statute.  A district court judge agreed and dismissed the case.  The Supreme Judicial Court reversed.

A defendant is guilty of criminal harassment when: (1) he knowingly engages in a pattern of conduct, speech, or acts, on at least three occasions; (2) he intended to target the victim each time; (3) the conduct seriously alarmed the victim; (4) a reasonable person would have suffered substantial emotional distress from the conduct; and (5) the conduct was committed willfully and maliciously.  The SJC found the police report in support of the complaint established probable cause for each element.  There were at least three separate acts when the defendant attached a GPS to each of the victim’s cars and then tracked their movements with his iPhone.  Further, there was evidence that the couple was substantially emotionally distressed (the husband changed his work schedule to be home at night, and the wife experienced difficulty sleeping), and it would be reasonable for any person to experience great alarm and severe emotional distress upon learning his movements were being tracked.  Finally, the defendant intentionally placed the GPS monitors on the victims’ cars with no legal justification.  Accordingly, the police report established probable cause that the defendant had criminally harassed the victims.

The case will not return to Hingham District Court where the Commonwealth will bear the burden of proving the case beyond a reasonable doubt.