When the State of Maryland tracks a vehicle with a GPS device attached to the exterior of a car in order to watch its movements, is that considered a “search” under the Fourth Amendment? A recent case that arose from the GPS tracking of a defendant’s car answered that question.
In the case, police officers asked officers in the Repeat Offender Proactive Enforcement Section (ROPE) to help them conduct surveillance on the defendant who they believed was involved in some commercial burglaries.
The GPS tracker used by ROPE had a cell phone piece and a GPS piece, which communicated to determine the latitude and longitude of where a unit was located. A battery that didn’t interfere with vehicle operation operated the device. It was activated before the installation and stored location data in its memory. Police could access the historical data as well as display location in real time.
For three days, the tracking device recorded the location of the defendant’s car, but the detectives did not retrieve the information. On the third day, the GPS tracking device told one of the police officers that the defendant’s vehicle had moved into their county. ROPE detectives went to the approximate location of the car based on the GPS.
Detective Laffin saw the vehicle, but instead of following, checked on whether any of the businesses in the area had signs of burglary. At one business (API), the detective noticed the door had damage and pry marks. Officers were called to investigate.
The GPS device was used to relocate the vehicle later in the morning. The detectives found it at a construction site where the defendant was working. Surveillance continued for several days. Finally, they attempted to do a vehicle take-down. The defendant sped up and lost them. When they finally located the defendant’s car with GPS, it was abandoned in an alley.
Search warrants were prepared for the defendants’ home and various pawnshops. The defendant was taken into custody. Various items were seized that bore serial numbers matching the serial numbers of items reported missing by API.
The defendant was charged with second-degree burglary, theft and malicious destruction of property. He brought motions to suppress, arguing that the use of a GPS placed on his car’s exterior constituted an illegal search.
The Supreme Court in United States v. Knotts had previously held that a person driving on public thoroughfares has no reasonable expectation of privacy. However, the defendant’s attorney argued that the cumulative effect of observing the defendant’s public movements long-term was greater than any single part of the surveillance. He also argued that the visual surveillance and GPS surveillance were so intertwined that evidence from both should be suppressed.
The trial court denied the motion to suppress. The defendant pled not guilty, but waived his right to jury trial. He was convicted by an agreed-upon statement of facts and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment.
The defendant appealed. While his appeal was pending, in 2012, the United States Supreme Court decided United States v. Jones. In that decision, notwithstanding the Knotts case, the Supreme Court held that installation of a GPS device on a target’s vehicle constitutes a search under the Fourth Amendment.
Nonetheless, the Court of Special Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling on the motion to suppress on the grounds that the officers believed that they were following binding precedent that permitted GPS tracking.
The Court of Appeals agreed to review the question of whether the GPS tracking was an illegal search. The appellate court explained that searches conducted without a warrant are presumed unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment. Usually, the remedy is suppression of evidence derived from that search. This remedy is not found in the Fourth Amendment, however. It is a judicial remedy created by case law that applies only in particular situations.
In its argument, the State agreed that the warrantless tracking was a Fourth Amendment violation under the Jones case, but it did not think that evidence from that tracking should be suppressed. The State argued that Knotts, which was precedent in Maryland at the time of the officers’ actions, should control the outcome of the case.
The appellate court explained that the defendant was right that there was no decision before Jones that expressly held that GPS was permitted under the Fourth Amendment. However, it found that the police officers in this case acted appropriately in relying on Knotts in conducting the GPS surveillance.
If you are arrested or charged with a crime, you should call a knowledgeable Maryland criminal defense attorney. We will develop the best strategy we can to defend your case. Contact us at 301-519-2801 or via our online form.
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