Can police put a GPS on your car?

Police GPS tracking your vehicle
Police GPS tracking your vehicle

GPS Placed without a Warrant

The FBI placed a GPS device on the undercarriage of Antoine Jones’ car. (U.S. v. Jones)  Luckily for Jones the warrant to place the device expired after 10 days and the FBI placed it on the 11th day.  Form this unlawful placement, the Feds monitored his car for the next 28 days where they used the data and other evidence to secure an indictment and conviction on federal drug trafficking conspiracy charges and was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Police must get a warrant to place a GPS on your car

Was the warrantless placement of the GPS device and the subsequent monitoring on public streets a search?  In other words, can police put a GPS on your car without a warrant?  The Court said NO.

Government’s argument

The government argued that there was no search since Jones had no “reasonable expectation of privacy” (REP) in the area of the vehicle accessed by the government (the underbody) relying on U.S. v. Katz.

To determine what qualifies as a “REP” the Court asks two questions:

  1. Whether there is a subjective expectation of the individual that her action will be private and;
  2. Whether such expectation is one “that society is prepared to recognize as reasonable.”

We need not address the government’s contentions because Jones’ Fourth Amendment rights do not rise and fall with the Katz formulation.  The Court shot down this argument swiftly and reminded everyone that if the government commits a trespass to gain information then that is illegal too.

Property Rights are still protected by the Fourth Amendment

We must assure preservation of that degree of privacy that existed when the Fourth Amendment was adopted.  Katz focused on the individual privacy rights and many people thought that the Fourth Amendment no longer protects property interests.  Katz, the Court explained, established that “property rights are not the sole measure of Fourth Amendment violations,” but did not snuff out the previously recognized protection for property.  The Katz REP test has been added to, not substituted for, the common-law trespassory test.

The government also unsuccessfully relied on two beeper cases post Katz for support.  The first was U.S. v. Knotts where a beeper was, by consent, placed in a container of chloroform before it came into Knott’s possession and was transported around in his vehicle on public roads.  The Court said there was no infringement on of Knott’s REP since the information obtained, location of the automobile container on public roads had been voluntarily conveyed to the public.

The Second Beeper case, U.S. v. Karo, decided whether the installation of a beeper in a container amounted to a search or seizure.  Here the beeper was, by consent, placed into a container and then delivered to a buyer having no idea of the presence of the beeper.  The Court said that Karo accepted the container as it came to him, beeper and all, and was therefore not entitled to object to the beepers presence.

Jones, who possessed the vehicle when the government trespassed to place the GPS on his vehicle, is much different.  By attaching the device to the vehicle, officers encroached on a protected area without a warrant and that was unlawful.

Criminal Defense Attorney Charleston, SC

If you have been charged with a drug crime as a result from a GPS device on your vehicle call an experienced and trusted  criminal defense lawyer Charleston, SC at the Dale Savage Law Firm today for a free case consultation (843) 530-7813.

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