June 28, 2013

Using a Global Positioning System device to gather evidence of employee misconduct

Using a Global Positioning System device to gather evidence of employee misconduct
2013 NY Slip Op 04838, Court of Appeals

The Department, suspecting that one of its employees was submitting false time reports, attached a global positioning system (GPS) device to the employee's personal automobile. Citing People v Weaver (12 NY3d 433) and United States v Jones(132 S Ct 945, the Court of Appeals ruled that the State's action was a search within the meaning of the State and Federal Constitutions but that under the relevant facts in this case “did not require a warrant.”

The court, however, then proclaimed that “on the facts of this case such surveillance was  unreasonable”

Addressing the lawful used of a GPS, the court noted that the employee’s Department initiated an investigation concerning the individual’s alleged unauthorized absences from duty and the falsification of records to conceal those absences. As a result the employee was served with certain disciplinary charges, found guilty and was suspended without pay for two months.

However, a second investigation was initiated when the Department referred the employee’s efforts to avoid surveillance to the Office of the State Inspector General. The Inspector General's investigation resulted in a second disciplinary proceeding, which resulted in this litigation.

According to the decision, the Inspector General's investigator attach a GPS device to the employee's car without his knowledge while the car was parked in a lot near the Department’s offices. Ultimately GPS devices recorded all of the car's movements for a month, including evenings, weekends and several days when the employee was on vacation. Subsequently the Inspector General’s investigators initiated surveillance of an apartment building the employee was suspected of visiting during working hours, subpoenaed E-Z Pass records and interviewed the employee and his secretary.

The resulted in the Department filing new charges against employee. The hearing officer found the employee guilty of 11 of the charges, eight of which were supported by evidence obtained through the use of a GPS device in whole or in part. The appointing authority adopted the hearing officer’s findings and recommendation and terminated the employee.

In explaining its ruling, the Court of Appeals said:

1. The attachment by law enforcement officers of a GPS device to the automobile of a criminal suspect, and the use of that device to track the suspect's movements, was a search subject to constitutional limitations.

2. The search in this case was a search within the meaning of Article I, §12 of the New York Constitution and the Fourth Amendment

3. The search in this case was within the "workplace" exception to the warrant requirement recognized in O'Connor v Ortega (480 US 709) and Matter of Caruso v Ward (72 NY2d 432).

The court noted that O'Connor involved the warrantless search by a public employer of the office of an employee suspected of misconduct. The United States Supreme Court upheld the search.

Subsequently the Court of Appeals had made it clear that it would follow O'Connor in deciding the constitutionality of searches conducted by public employers, whether for "noninvestigatory, work-related purposes" or for "investigations of work-related misconduct," under the New York as well as the Federal Constitution in its decision in Caruso.

Significantly, the employee did not challenge the existence of a workplace exception to the warrant requirement, but argued that it is inapplicable because the object of the search in this case was the employee's personal car. Accordingly, the employee contended that the court should “confine the exception to ‘the workplace itself, or . . . workplace-issued property that can be seen as an extension of the workplace.’" 

The Court of Appeals rejected this contention “at least insofar as it would require a public employer to get a warrant for a search designed to find out the location of the automobile an employee is using when that employee is, or claims to be, working for the employer.”

The bottom line: the Court of Appeals conclude that “when an employee chooses to use his car during the business day, GPS tracking of the car may be considered a workplace search [and the] Inspector General did not violate the State or Federal Constitution by failing to seek a warrant before attaching a GPS device to [the employee's] car.”

That said, the court then explained that “While the search did not require a warrant, it did not comply with either the State or Federal Constitution unless it was a reasonable search.” According, the court ruled that the State has failed to demonstrate that this search was reasonable.

Use of GPS device, said the court, was conditioned on the employer first making a reasonable effort to avoid tracking the employee using a GPS device outside of business hours. Its failure to do so will result in the search, as a whole, being considered unreasonable.

Accordingly the court said that what is required in this instance is the suppression of the GPS evidence. 

However, the suppression of evidence obtained using a GPS device in this case did not to preclude the employer from disciplining the employee since only four of the 11 charges for which the employee was found guilty depended on GPS evidence. Accordingly only dismissal of those four charges was required.

The court then said that as to the others, the GPS evidence was either substantially duplicated by other records in evidence or was wholly irrelevant. Thus, whether the seven surviving charges warrant the same or a lesser penalty is a matter to be decided, in the first instance, by the Commissioner of Labor.

Accordingly, the Court of Appeals reversed the Appellate Division’s ruling and said that “charges one, two, three and six against [the employee are] dismissed, and matter remitted to the Appellate Division with directions to remand to the Commissioner of Labor for redetermination of the penalty.

The decision is posted on the Internet at: