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Warrantless Search: Cell Videos, Photos, GPS Evidence Admissible

By Kelly Cheung on May 29, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

A bank robber was caught soon after a robbery with the help of a GPS device thrown in with the stolen money. As a result, he was tracked. The police found in a stolen van, through a warrantless search, his cell phone with photos and videos. The phone videos and photos along with the GPS evidence were all later submitted as evidence against him.

The Eighth Circuit has upheld the district court's admission of all of this high-tech evidence. The Fourth Amendment was not violated when a cell phone was searched without a warrant in this case, but not because of the automobile exception to a warrantless search. The Confrontation Clause was also not violated when police used a GPS device to track down the robber. It was properly admitted.

Fourth Amendment - Cell Phone Photos and Videos

Robin T. Brooks Jr. argued that the court erred in allowing the photos and video discovered by police in a warrantless search of the cell phone. His contention is that his cell phone is not a container that would activate the automobile exception to a warrantless search.

However, the court found that regardless of whether the warrantless search was improper, the evidence is admissible under the independent source doctrine. This doctrine renders the exclusionary rule inapplicable if the evidence is acquired through another source independent from the tainted search.

The court found that the subsequent search warrant is an independent source to render the photos and videos admissible. The arrest affidavit had enough information to establish there was probable cause.

Brooks also argued that the affidavit had information to taint the subsequent search warrant, but the court disagreed. Although there were statements stating that photos and videos were found, there were no details. Through the GPS, police found the stolen van, the cell phone and Brooks. Along with two witnesses with information on the possible getaway driver, the court found enough evidence to establish probable cause without the tainted information considered.

Confrontation Clause - GPS Evidence

Brooks also argued that the GPS evidence is inadmissible hearsay and it was admitted in violation of his Confrontation Clause rights.

The court found that the district court did not abuse its discretion in taking judicial notice of the reliability and accuracy of GPS technology. They noted how widely used and accepted these devices are including in court supervision. The court stated that GPS are generally assumed to be accurate by the courts and are not "relatively new" as Brooks asserts.

Brooks argued that the GPS devices are testimonial running afoul of the Confrontation Clause, but the court disagreed with this as well. The GPS was not created for the purpose of proving any fact at trial. The GPS was used to track the ongoing pursuit and catch the suspect and stolen money. The evidence just so happens to have also been used in trial later.

In sum, the Eighth Circuit established that cell phone photos and videos were admissible evidence in Brook's case because of the subsequent warrant. However, the court did not decide whether or not cell phones are containers for purposes of a warrantless search. The court also established that GPS technology is accurate and non-testimonial evidence admissible in court.

The use of GPS devices have been around for a while, but their popularity gives the authorities a powerful tool to track suspects reports The New York Times. These devices will surely come up more often in courts as defendants fight against the many uses of technology.

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