Warrantless Attachment of GPS to Vehicles

There appears to be confusion regarding the application of U.S. v. Jones and the warrantless attachment of a GPS tracking device to vehicles. In Jones, “The Government physically occupied private property for the purpose of obtaining information. We have no doubt that such a physical intrusion would have been considered a ‘search’ within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment when it was adopted.” Therefore, the Court held that the use of the GPS was a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.

Jones, the government had a warrant for the placement of the GPS device but the warrant expired by one day prior to the placement of the device. Therefore, the Court DID NOT address whether a warrant was even required since warrant had expired and was therefore moot. Instead of arguing the search was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment, the government argued that placement of the GPS on the car was not a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. However, during oral arguments, the government tried to argue the search was reasonable. This argument was not addressed by the Court. Therefore, the Court DID NOT address that even if placement of a GPS device is a search, such a search would be unreasonable to conduct without a warrant. The Court noted:

“The Government argues in the alternative that even if the attachment and use of the device was a search, it was reasonable--and thus lawful--under the Fourth Amendment because “officers had reasonable suspicion, and indeed probable cause, to believe that [Jones] was a leader in a large-scale cocaine distribution conspiracy.” We have no occasion to consider this argument. The Government did not raise it below, and the D. C. Circuit therefore did not address it. We consider the argument forfeited.” (cites omitted).

As it has always been understood, when in doubt, get a warrant. But know the precedent established in United States v. Knotts, 460 U.S. 276 (1983) and United States v. Karo, 468 U. S. 705 (1984) still applies, which held that the warrantless monitoring of signals (beeper and wireless phone pings) inside an automobile traveling on public roads did not violate the Fourth Amendment because it did not reveal any information that was not also available through visual surveillance. However, Knotts and Karo are different then Jones in that the beeper had been placed in the container before it came into the defendants’ possession, with the consent of the then-owner. 460 U. S., at 278. Knotts did not challenge that installation, and the Court declined to consider its effect on the Fourth Amendment analysis. Id., at 279, n. However, in Karo, the installation was challenged. As in Knotts, at the time the beeper was installed the container belonged to a third party, and it did not come into possession of the suspect until later. 468 U. S., at 708. Thus, the specific question the Court considered was whether the installation “with the consent of the original owner constitute[d] a search or seizure . . . when the container is delivered to a buyer having no knowledge of the presence of the beeper.” Id., at 707 (emphasis added). The U.S. Supreme Court held not.

Conclusion: To date, there has been no U.S. Supreme Court decision that has established whether the placement of GPS device to the undercarriage of a vehicle, absent a warrant and in a public place, amounts to a "search" in violation of the Fourth Amendment. However, there have been multiple Federal Circuit Court decisions that support such placement:

United States v. Sparks, 750 F.Supp.2d 384 (2010), the court held that U.S. v. Moore's 1977 holding that probable cause is required for the installation of a tracking device, is no longer good law following the U.S. Supreme Court's 1983 holding in U.S. v. Knotts. District Court Justice Young commented that “where the use of a tracking device serves only as a technological substitute for an otherwise legal activity, it must remain constitutionally sound.” Knotts at 284. In Sparks, FBI agents attached a GPS unit to a suspected bank robber's vehicle. The Court ruled that the suspect had neither a subjective expectation of privacy in the open air parking lot (where GPS was affixed), the exterior of the vehicle, or the movement of his vehicle on the streets. Id. at 396. With the absence of any reasonable expectation of privacy, the Court indicated that no warrant or court order was needed to install or monitor the GPS. Id.

Morton v. Nassau County Police Department, 2007 WL 4264569 (E.D.N.Y. ), plaintiff’s brought a civil rights claim against police alleging the warrantless installation and use of a GPS violated her Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments rights against unreasonable searches and seizures. Nassau County Police had attached a GPS device to plaintiff’s vehicle based upon previous sightings at residential burglaries. The Court cited approvingly to U.S. v. Knotts, “a person traveling in an automobile on public thoroughfares has no reasonable expectation of privacy in his movements from one place to another.” Knotts at 281. The Court noted “the use of the GPS device did not permit the discovery of any information that could not have been obtained by following an automobile traveling on public roads either physically or through visual surveillance, conduct that neither requires a warrant nor implicated Fourth Amendment rights.” Id. at 282. In continuing to follow Knotts the Court held there was no reasonable expectation of privacy in one’s movements on public ways, and thus there was no search, seizure or Fourth Amendment implication by mere placement of a GPS device. at 4. See also U.S. v. Moran, 349 F.Supp. 2d 425 (N.D. N.Y. 2005).

The Fifth Circuit standard for the warrantless installation of an electronic tracking device is an “intermediate standard”, requiring law enforcement officers to have reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot.
United States v. Michael, 645 F.2d 252 (5th Cir. 1981). In U.S. v. Michael, the Fifth Circuit held that DEA’s warrantless attachment of an electronic tracking device, to the exterior of a suspect’s vehicle while parked in a public place, based upon reasonable suspicion was sufficient to reduce any Fourth Amendment concerns. Id. at 257. The 5th Circuit en banc, noted expressly “...under the facts presented, the installation of the beeper was permissible, even if we assume the installation was a search.” Id. at 256. Thus in the Fifth Circuit in an abundance of caution, ruled that the warrantless GPS installation should be based upon reasonable suspicion that the suspect (vehicle) is involved in criminal activity.

The Seventh Circuit has continually held that there is
no search or seizure under the 4th Amendment when police attach a GPS tracking device underneath a suspect’s vehicle, that does not draw power from the engine or battery, does not take up room occupied by passengers or packages, and does not alter the vehicles appearance. See, United States v. Garcia, 474 F.3d 994 (7th Cir. 2007), and United States v. Cuevas-Perez, 2011 WL 1585072 (C.A.7 (Ill.)).

United States v. Marquez, 605 F.3d 604 (8th Cir. 2010), the Eighth Circuit noted no reasonable expectation of privacy had been violated by DEA agents installing the GPS. Id. at 607. The Court explained that a person traveling in a motor vehicle via public roads has no reasonable expectation of privacy in his movements from one locale to another. Id. at 608. The 8th Circuit held that when police have reasonable suspicion that a specific vehicle is transporting drugs, a warrant is not required to install a non-invasive GPS tracking device, while the vehicle is parked in a public place, for a reasonable period of time. Id. at 610. Thus in the Eighth Circuit while law enforcement officials do not need a warrant to install a GPS device, they must possess a reasonable suspicion that the vehicle is involved in criminal activity.

The Ninth Circuit in following
U.S. v. Knotts, ruled that United States Forest Service officers warrantless placement of two electronic tracking devices on the undercarriage of a suspect’s vehicle while parked outside the curtilage did not constitute a seizure in a Fourth Amendment sense. United States v. McIver, 186 F.3d 1119, 1127 (9th Cir. 1999). The Ninth Circuit cited to several cases which indicated that there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in the exterior of a vehicle. See, New York v. Class, 475 U.S. 106 (1980) - “(t)he exterior of a car, of course, is thrust into the public eye, and thus to examine it does not constitute a search” Id. at 114.

United States v. Shovea, 580 F.2d 1382 (10th Cir. 1978), federal agents became aware of a suspicious order of precursor chemicals from a New York based company for the production of methamphetamine. Id. at 1383. Physical surveillance of the pick-up of the precursor chemicals, coupled with the suspicious manner of transport, and subsequent arrival at an airport for a trans-continental trip provided agents with the requisite probable cause to place an electronic tracking device onto a suspect’s vehicle. Id. at 1384. The 10th Circuit noted that although whether the installation of an electronic tracking device on a motor vehicle is a search or seizure under the 4th Amendment was a difficult question, it need not be reached in the present case. Id. at 1387. The 10th Circuit assumed without deciding that the installation of the tracking device was a search under the 4th Amd, that was justified by the existence of probable cause and exigent circumstances (ie., the inherent mobility of vehicles making the application for a warrant impracticable ie., motor vehicle exception) Id. at 1388. Thus in the 10th Circuit, the warrantless installation of a tracking device based upon probable cause without initially acquiring a court order does not violate the 4th Amendment. Id.

United States v. Smith, 387 Fed.Appx. 918 (C.A. 11th Circuit), a DEA Task-Force Officer, without the benefit of a warrant attached a GPS unit to a marijuana trafficker’s Cadillac Escalade. The Court found that the GPS was installed in a public place and held that Smith lacked any reasonable expectation of privacy in the exterior of his vehicle. Id. at 921. The Court indicated that without any legitimate expectations of privacy there were no 4th Amendment issues. See, United States v. Barton, 698 F.Supp.2d 1303 (N.D. Fla. 2010) – “there is no 4th Amd violation for using a tracking device as a substitute for visual surveillance”. In the 11th Circuit warrantless installation of GPS devices does not impede on any reasonable expectations of privacy, thus no 4th Amendments concerns exist.
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