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Good-faith exception saves GPS search

A police officer’s warrantless attachment of a GPS tracking device — just months before the U.S. Supreme Court said “get a warrant” — passed muster because the officer acted in good faith, a split panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Aug. 19.

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court said in U.S. v. Jones that installation of a GPS device on a target’s vehicle is a search under the Fourth Amendment, and the warrantless attachment of the tracking device to Jones’ car violated his civil rights. But the high court did not decide whether reasonable suspicion or probable cause could justify warrantless GPS attachments, leaving an opening for prosecutors to save the search in the 4th Circuit’s new decision in U.S. v. Stephens.

Baltimore police officer Paul Geare had his eye on Henry Stephens for a while. He knew Stephens was a convicted felon and that he worked security at a local nightclub. On May 13, 2011, Geare, acting without a warrant, installed a battery-powered GPS device under the rear bumper of Stephens’ vehicle, which was parked in a public lot. Several days later, police followed Stephens to his job and found a loaded pistol inside the vehicle.

While the illegal firearm charge was pending against Stephens, the Jones decision came down and the federal trial court invited Stephens to file a motion to suppress. The district court said Officer Geare acted in good faith and denied the suppression motion.

The 4th Circuit panel agreed in a majority opinion by Judge Dennis W. Shedd.

Case law in the 4th Circuit shows that Maryland officers have been attaching tracking devices to vehicles since at least 1976, Shedd said, and the officer here understood that a warrant was needed only when (unlike here) the GPS was wired into the vehicle’s battery system. The officer’s and the district judge’s understanding of the state of the law as it existed in 2011 was “understandable,” Shedd wrote.

Because the search was conducted in objectively reasonable reliance on appellate precedent, the exclusionary rule does not apply, the majority said.

The problem with the cited appellate precedent, according to dissenting Judge Stephanie D. Thacker, was it was not binding in the 4th Circuit. .

At the time the warrantless search was conducted in Stephens’ case, no binding appellate precedent existed in this circuit specifically authorizing law enforcement’s actions, Thacker said, and the majority could not fill the void left by this absence of binding precedent with a “simple survey of an amorphous ‘vast majority of decisions.’”


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