It appears not all citizens are protected from warrantless tracking after all, despite the recent Supreme Court ruling in the Jones case which declared GPS tracking of suspected criminals conducted without a warrant unconstitutional. In Iowa, a federal judge decided evidence gathered with a warrantless GPS tracking device installed on the vehicle in the case against a suspected drug trafficker is admissible in court.
DEA agents affixed a GPS tracking device on the car of Angel Amaya without first obtaining a warrant, and US District Judge Mark Bennett declared the evidence was admissible in court because the device was placed prior to the Jones ruling. Agents did exactly as they should at the time, acting in good faith and following the laws laid out by the 8 th Circuit Court of Appeals stating warrantless tracking was a completely legal form of surveillance in Iowa and six additional states.
This is the third such ruling by federal court judges since the decision was made at the Supreme Court level. That means not all criminals are out of the woods yet, unless they happen to live in a state that did not allow warrantless GPS tracking, or if the evidence was gathered after the Jones case was decided.
“It is a bit of an end-run around for law enforcement,” according to Hanni Fakhoury, an attorney with the Electric Frontier Foundation. “And it leads to disparate results because whether [GPS evidence] gets suppressed or not depends on what the law of the circuit was prior to Jones.” Which courts had previously deemed warrantless GPS tracking legal? The 7 th (Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana), 8th (Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North and South Dakota) and 9th (Alaska, Arizona, California, Guam, Hawaii, Idaho, the Mariana Islands, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington) had all ruled in favor of warrantless tracking.
What does this mean for law enforcement officials in these 19 states? Provided the “good faith exception” is used supporting the placement of the GPS tracking device on a suspect’s vehicle in order to more effectively conduct surveillance, and that the device was placed prior to the Jones decision, evidence could be admissible.
Legal experts feel this is one big disaster for the Supreme Court ruling. “If we’re going to apply the law one way in half the country and another way in the other half of the country, that’s a real problem,” said Fakoury. The 2011 Supreme Court Davis v. US case brought about this good faith exception, used for searches that were conducted legally at the time, but were later determined to be unconstitutional.
The defense attorney representing Amaya, R. Scott Rhinehart, was shocked after hearing the court’s decision. “I’m not sure where this is coming from to be honest with you,” he said. He points out that “good faith” was no part of the Supreme Court’s decision.
Amaya was suspected of drug trafficking, and was indicted last July for possession and conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine, cocaine, and marijuana. GPS tracking devices were placed on the vehicles of nine different vehicles which belonged to a handful of suspects, three of which were vehicles owned or driven by Amaya.
So far, three cases in total have succeeded using this good faith exception; the other two being in Hawaii and California. Fakhoury says the Davis ruling itself, not the judges application of the ruling, is to blame. “Davis is a really poorly-reasoned, not well thought out option. This situation is just going to keep popping up again and again,” he said. “And the whole point of a Supreme Court ruling is to clarify the law and make it uniform across the country.”