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Exclusionary Rule Doesn't Block Evidence From GPS Tracking

By William Peacock, Esq. on August 21, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court held in United States v. Jones that GPS tracking of a suspect's car amounted to a search under the Fourth Amendment. Before that decision, however, the law was unclear at best (and may have even supported the notion that GPS tracking wasn't a search). That's the point of today's Fourth Circuit, Fourth Amendment opinion: The exclusionary rule won't bar evidence obtained through a search that was performed by an officer who was relying on binding precedent.

Binding? Sort of. There was a lot of case law stating that these weren't searches, all of which pointed to a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court case that dealt with beepers -- the predecessor to the modern GPS tracker. Judge Stephanie Thacker, in dissent, argued that the precedent wasn't binding, and that officers shouldn't rush to use emerging technology without first seeking legal guidance.

Majority: See Knotts

In the case before the Fourth Circuit, U.S. v. Stephens, Henry Stephens, a convicted felon, was caught with a firearm by officers who suspected that he was involved in drug and firearm crimes. The gun was discovered after police tracked Stephens' car with a battery-powered GPS tracker.

Jones made it clear that the officers' warrantless search violated the Fourth Amendment. However, the trial court held that the exclusionary rule didn't apply due to the officer's good faith. The Fourth Circuit majority agreed, beginning with the Supreme Court's holding that "searches conducted in objectively reasonable reliance on binding appellate precedent are not subject to the exclusionary rule."

The majority then reviewed the decades of cases dealing with beepers (and later, GPS trackers), almost all of which held that technology-assisted tracking was not a search (and therefore, no warrant was required). In Knotts, the Supreme Court case which formed the basis of most of these opinions, the Court noted:

"The fact that the officers in this case relied not only on visual surveillance, but on the use of the beeper to signal the presence of Petschen's automobile to the police receiver, does not alter the situation. Nothing in the Fourth Amendment prohibited the police from augmenting the sensory faculties bestowed upon them at birth with such enhancement as science and technology afforded them in this case."

And though Knotts was not perfectly on point, according to the majority, it was close enough to support finding of good faith on the officer's part, which means the exclusionary rule doesn't apply:

"After Jones, we know that such an interpretation of Knotts is incorrect. Without the benefit of hindsight, however, and with no contrary guidance from the Supreme Court or this Court, we believe that a reasonably well-trained officer in this Circuit could have relied on Knotts as permitting the type of warrantless GPS usage in this case. "

Dissent: Unsettled Law, No Exigent Circumstances

Judge Thacker disagreed with the majority, arguing that "the exclusionary rule is well-tailored to hold accountable the law enforcement officers in this case who relied on non-binding, non-precedential authority regarding emerging technology -- without first bothering to seek legal guidance -- in order to conduct a warrantless search which spanned a period of nearly two months."

She emphasized the lack of urgency here: The two months of tracking happened because "in the words of one of the officers, 'the investigation was taking too long,' and officers 'were spending too much time dragging it out.'"

And Thacker makes a simple point regarding the good faith exception to the exclusionary rule: the exact words in Davis were "reliance on binding appellate precedent." There was no Fourth Circuit precedent on GPS trackers, and in fact, in the neighboring D.C. Circuit, a panel had just held that GPS tracking was a search (this case was part of the Jones appeal to the Supreme Court). The issue was far from clear, and there certainly wasn't binding precedent backing the officers' actions.

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