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Vehicle GPS Data: Warrant or No Warrant for Police to Obtain?

Posted by Robert E. Heyman | Jan 06, 2021 | 0 Comments

A number of years ago, I defended a client who was charged with conspiracy to traffic narcotics in which detectives attempted to attach a GPS transmitter to the underside of my client's vehicle. For whatever reason, the device fell off the car shortly after my client began driving it - an obvious blow to their investigation. My client was later acquitted of all charges at trial.

That story aside, savvy police investigation techniques now include obtaining any and all available surveillance information, be it obtained from wiretaps, surveillance cameras, motor vehicle black boxes or GPS monitoring. The issue of using GPS transmitters in vehicles has been previously addressed by the U.S. Supreme Court in United States v Jones, 565 US 400 (2012). In that case, police attached a GPS monitoring device to the Defendant's Jeep and thereafter traced his whereabouts for approximately 30 days. Subsequent to his arrest, he moved to suppress the information received as the product of an illegal search. When the trial court agreed, the government appealed the adverse ruling to the Supreme Court. Judge Scalia, writing for the majority, concluded that because the police had to physically attach the device and thereby "trespass" upon the defendant's property, their actions constituted a "search" for which a warrant was required.

A recent case in Florida re-addressed the application of the Jones opinion. In Bailey v State, a case decided November 16, 2020, the First DCA was presented with a case in which the suspect, charged with murder, had been driving a car at the time of the killing that had been loaned to him by a third party. Unbeknownst to him, the car's owner had voluntarily permitted the finance company to attach a GPS to the vehicle in case it needed to be repossessed. Detectives learned of this and obtained, without a warrant, the GPS records for the vehicle from the finance company.

The First DCA distinguished this case from Jones in that the suspect had no expectation of privacy in records derived from a third party with no prior police involvement. Unlike the facts before Justice Scalia, the police never touched the vehicle - therefore no "trespass" or "intrusion" upon the Defendant's property which was present in Jones. The use of technology, and investigative curiosity sealed the defendant's fate.

About the Author

Robert E. Heyman

Bio Robert E. Heyman was born in Providence, RI, and grew up in Barrington, RI. He graduated from Barrington High School in 1974, and earned the rank of Eagle Scout. Following high school graduation, Mr. Heyman attended Northfield-Mt. Hermon Academy in Northfield, MA and thereafter attended co...

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