Was the search admissible? Federal appeals court hears GPS case.

Police in South Carolina were following a car on an interstate in 2009 when its driver failed to properly signal a move. They stopped the car, requested and received consent to search the vehicle, and found heroin hidden inside a false compartment. They charged the passenger with heroin possession.

That suspect was subsequently convicted at trial and awaiting sentencing when the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in another case that was highly germane to his situation. Simply stated, the Court found that installing a global-positioning (GPS) device on a vehicle equates to a search under the Constitution. That means that questions attach to whether a warrant must precede installation in any given case.

No such warrant was ever sought in the suspect’s case. Based on the Supreme Court decision, he won a new trial, at which prosecutors omitted mention of GPS tracking and relied exclusively upon the traffic infraction and subsequent search. The suspect was convicted on that evidence alone and sentenced to 21 years in prison.

His attorney has appealed that. Arguing recently before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit (the 11th Circuit has appellate jurisdiction in Florida), he stated that, absent the GPS tracking, there would never have been a stop and search to begin with.

“They wouldn’t have been there,” he told a panel of appellate court judges.

He further dismissed the prosecution’s argument that the government’s reliance on the tracking system “was in good faith,” noting that any court decision upholding it would promote the ability of law enforcement bodies to illegally chose methods to develop case leads. Once that power is in place, he noted, authorities can simply follow suspects, wait until they commit minor transgressions and then conduct searches in hope of finding evidence that will result in criminal convictions.

We will keep readers apprised of material developments in this matter. The appellate court has yet to issue a ruling.

Source: The Blog of Legal Times, “In Fourth Circuit, a spotlight on warrantless GPS tracking,” Mike Scarcella, May 24, 2013