Kentucky Judge Dismisses Evidence from GPS Tracker, No Warrant
How far will law enforcement officers go to get evidence? Would they break the law themselves?
In Kentucky earlier this week, a judge ruled in favor of the defendant in what should have been a very easy case to try. However, the evidence against the defendant was gathered illegally because the police officers placed a GPS tracker on his vehicle to track his movements without a warrant. In a recent case in the Supreme Court, this was ruled illegal.
Judge Amul Thapar of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky wrote that law enforcement officers violated Robert Lee’s constitutional rights when they placed a GPS tracking device on his vehicle to monitor his movements. As a result of being monitored, law enforcement officers were able to catch him and seize over 150 pounds of marijuana from his vehicle.
When Lee discovered that a GPS tracking device had been placed on his vehicle without a warrant, he submitted a request to the court to omit the evidence gathered by the tracker because it was done without a warrant. “In this case, the DEA agents had their fishing poles out to catch Lee.,” Thapar wrote. “Admittedly, the agents did not intend to break the law. But they installed a GPS device on Lee’s car without a warrant ‘in the hope that something might turn up,'” he said.
Earlier this year, the Supreme Court ruled that no law enforcement officer on any level could place a GPS tracking device on a suspect’s vehicle without a proper warrant. This ruling was the result of a case very similar to this, in which a drug dealer was caught because of evidence piled against him by the use of a GPS tracking device that had been place on his vehicle to track his movements without a warrant.
Despite the Supreme Court ruling, several lower courts have in recent months permitted evidence gathered through warrantless GPS tracking to be used to prosecute individuals.
In the Ninth Circuit, for instance, three district courts have so far this year applied a ‘good-faith exemption’ to permit evidence from warrantless GPS tracking, Thapar noted. One district court in the Eight Circuit has also done the same.
In each of these cases, the courts held that the warrantless tracking was exempt from the Supreme Court ruling because it was conducted before the ruling and because appeals courts in both the Eighth Circuit and the Ninth Circuit have previously permitted warrantless GPS tracking.
The same reasoning cannot be applied to Lee’s case because there has been no similar precedent established by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeal. “When carrying out searches, federal officers need only know the binding decisions of the Supreme Court and their circuit’s court of appeals,” Thapar noted.
In the absence of a precedent in the Sixth Circuit, the officers acted illegally when they attached the GPS tracker to Lee’s car without a warrant, he wrote.
“The DEA agents in this case did not rely on any binding appellate precedent,” Thapar wrote. “Neither the Sixth Circuit nor the Supreme Court had spoken on the issue of GPS surveillance when the agents placed the tracking device on Lee’s car.”
Lee was arrested in September 2011 on his way back to London, Ky. after a trip to Chicago. Lee had just completed a period of supervised release after a 42-month stint in prison on marijuana distribution and firearms possession charges.