Criticism over the popular GPS navigation application, Waze, has been renewed once again. The unique mapping application provides users with features unavailable on Google or Apple maps. Waze allows users to mark the presence of red-light cameras, vehicles stopped in or on the shoulder of the roadway, police officers, and speed traps. While using the application, spoken notificationsalert you to other users’ “tags” as you approach them.
Waze allows users to mark the location of police.
Google acquiredWaze in 2013 for reportedly over $1 billion dollars. According to Waze’s website, over 100 million drivers use the application to avoid traffic hazards. However, one feature of the application in particular has repeatedly drawn negative attention: the ability to mark police location. Users can anonymously “tag” hidden police traps, making an emoji-type icon of a police officer appear on the map. The user-added notifications also indicate how long ago the notification was added, and that user can also receive “likes” from other users who confirm the report.
In late 2014, the Chief of Police for the Los Angeles Police Departmentsent a letter to the CEO of Google to alert him that Waze’s police presence notification posed a danger to the lives of police officers in the United States. The letter mentioned the then recent slaying of two New York Police Department officers. The officers’ killer had used the Waze application to track the police officers’ movements prior to their assassinations.
In early 2015, the president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, Edward Mullins, sent a letterto Google expressing concerns over the “police icon.” Mullins also mentioned the killing of the two New York Police Officers in 2014. Mullins’s letter stated that “[e]ven if Google has a rightto disseminate information regarding police locations, it does not follow that Google shoulddo so.” Interestingly, he requested removal of the police icon on the basis of Google’s “responsibility in exercising its rights” and not on the illegality of the feature. Irrespective of this, Mullins ended his letter by threatening to use publicity, judicial, and legislative means to protect the safety of its members and of police officers throughout America.
In 2019, the New York City Police Department sent a letter to Waze’s parent company, Google, demanding that it immediately remove the function that permits Waze users to report DWI checkpoints throughout New York City.
In February of 2019, The New York City police department sent a letter to Google demanding that it immediately remove the function that permits the public to report and map DWI checkpoints throughout New York City. The letter is dated less than one month after Google rolled out speed-limit information and speed-camera locationalerts on its very own Google Maps application. This demand specifically criticized a Waze user’s ability to mark DWI checkpoints, although the application does not currently allow users to indicate what activity an officer is engaged in, but only their location.
Once again, the demand to remove the police alert function was accompanied by a statement of Google’s alleged responsibility to not put drivers, their passengers, and the general public at risk: “[P]osting such information for public consumption is irresponsible since it only serves to aid impaired and intoxicated drivers to evade checkpoints and encourage[s] reckless driving.”
“Individuals who post the locations of DWI checkpoints may be engaging in criminal conduct . . .”
The letter additionally indicates that “[i]ndividuals who post the locations of DWI checkpoints may be engaging in criminal conduct since such actions could be intentional attempts to prevent or impair the administration of laws and other relevant criminal and traffic laws.”
Under New York law, a person is guilty of Obstructing Governmental Administrationin the Second Degree when, in general, a person intentionally prevents or attempts to prevent a public servant from performing an official function by means of either intimidation, physical force or interference; any independently unlawful act; interfering with telecommunications systems owned by the state, county, or city; or by releasing a dangerous animal under circumstances evincing the actor’s intent that the animal obstruct governmental administration. Additionally, the official function being obstructed must be authorized.
Much like marking the location of police on the Waze application, it has previously been suggested that flashing one’s headlamps at another vehicle may be obstruction of justice.
In 2014, the American Civil Liberties Union brought an action against the City of Ellisville, Missouri on behalf of Michael Elli, who had been pulled over after he flashed his headlightsto drivers approaching a speed-trap that he had just observed. Elli was charged with violating City of Ellisville Code of Ordinances § 375.100 which prohibited the use of flashing signals on motor vehicles except as a means of indicating a right or left turn. At a hearing, the City of Ellisville suggested that flashing headlamps might be illegal interference with a police investigation, much like the argument made by New York City in its letter to Google. However, the courtrejected this argument stating that “[e]ven assuming, arguendo, that Plaintiff or another driver is communicating a message that one should slow down because a speed trap is ahead and discovery or apprehension is impending, that conduct is not illegal.”
Elli argued that he was likely to succeed on the merits of a claim that prohibiting him from flashing his headlights to signal to other drivers was a violation of his First Amendment right to free speech. The Supreme Court of the United States held in Spence v. State of Washingtonthat speech is protected under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution when “[a]n intent to convey a particularized message [is] present, and in the surrounding circumstances the likelihood [is] great that the message would be understood by those who viewed it.” The court noted in its opinion that the flashing of headlamps is commonly understood as conveying a messageto other drivers to slow down and proceed with caution. Similar to the court’s observation in City of Ellisville, it is likely that the tagging of traffic hazards and police presence would indicate an intent to convey a message that would be understood by those who view it on the map.
It appears that Waze users are well within current law when they identify the location of police in the application, just as those who have written Google on the issue seem to understand. If Waze cannot be compelled to discontinue the feature, it will have to do so on its own volition.