Pill Bottle Trackers: Will New Tech Tool Stay Legal?

Published Online: Thursday, February 14, 2013
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The New York Police Department’s latest tool to catch and deter pharmacy crime involves placing pill bottles with GPS tracking devices on pharmacies’ shelves. According to a January 15, 2013, article in The New York Times, the plan is a response to an increase in deadly pharmacy robberies in the state.

The decoys resemble sealed narcotic bottles, and are weighted and rattle when shaken, much like real bottles. Once removed from a special base, a tracker transmits a signal, allowing law enforcement detectives to follow its position within minutes of a theft report. Already used in several US locations, New York Police Department Chief Spokesman Paul J. Browne told The New York Times that the goal is to get the 1800 pharmacies in New York City and the surrounding area to use the bottles.

Purdue Pharma, producer of OxyContin, developed the bottles.

Law enforcement and enterprising citizens have successfully used tech tools to track thieves in several prior incidents. In one case, reported by The Philadelphia Inquirer on November 11, 2012, Philadelphia police tracked a pair of robbers using a GPS device planted in a pill bottle. Within half an hour of the theft, police found the suspects outside a house and charged them. The Bangor Daily News reported that a 7-year sentence was handed down to a defendant in a similar case. Police tracked a GPS signal placed in stolen pill bottles to the defendant’s location at a nearby golf course minutes after the theft, the article reported.

Information regarding law enforcement obligations for investigations using GPS surveillance have not been publicly released, however, and present the possibility of complications in investigations beyond an initial incident.

A January 16, 2013, article on The Huffington Post reported that Justice Department memos on those obligations were released per an American Civil Liberties Union Freedom of Information Act request—but with most information redacted. The memos referenced a Supreme Court ruling in the case United States v Jones, a Huffington Post article from January 23, 2012, states. The ruling determined that GPS tracking without a warrant is unconstitutional, because it constitutes an unlawful search.

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