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Case may clarify GPS tracking appeals

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court decided U.S. v. Jones, a case involving the warrantless installation and use of a Global Positioning System tracking device on a suspect’s vehicle. In a majority opinion written by Justice Scalia, the Court held that the installation of a GPS device on a suspect’s vehicle was a trespass on private property and, when combined with police monitoring, the installation constituted a search under the Fourth Amendment.

The Court’s decision in Jones was important because law enforcement agencies across the country use GPS information to bolster their cases against suspects charged with drug crimes and other offenses. Unfortunately, the Court did not provide much information about how challenges to warrantless GPS tracking should be handled.

Currently, one case involving GPS tracking is making its way through the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. It may provide other circuits with guidance of how these sorts of appeals should be considered.

At issue is the conviction of Naarl Joseph Richard for heroin trafficking. In 2009, the car Richard was riding in was stopped for a traffic violation in South Carolina. Police asked to search the vehicle and they discovered a large amount of heroin hidden in a secret compartment. Though police said that they stopped the car Richard was riding in at random, law enforcement agencies had, in fact, been monitoring the car using a GPS device for some time. They had installed the device on the car without a warrant.

Richard was initially convicted of possession of heroin with intent to distribute. The Court, however, decided Jones while he was awaiting sentencing and his conviction was thrown out. Prosecutors once again brought charges against Richard, but could not use GPS data to explain how police discovered the car he was riding in. Nevertheless, Richard was convicted a second time and sentenced to 21 years in prison.

On appeal, Richard argued that prosecutors should not have been allowed to present evidence from the traffic stop at all – including the heroin – because police would not have pulled the car over without the GPS data. The decision may well depend on how the appellate court interprets a specific exception to the exclusionary rule, which prohibits the introduction of evidence collected in violation of a person’s Fourth Amendment rights.

Currently, the federal circuit courts are split as to whether the good faith exception to the exclusionary rule should allow prosecutors to present evidence discovered as a result of warrantless GPS tracking. The good faith exception allows the presentation of illegally discovered evidence so long as police were acting in good faith – that is, that they believed their actions were legal at the time.

The court’s decision in Richard’s case is expected later this summer, and it may prove to set an important precedent.