Arizona Court Rules Police Need a Warrant to Use GPS Tracking Evidence

The communications revolution of the 21st Century has transformed crime investigations. It’s much easier to track people than in previous years because of global positioning systems (GPS). However, the question of whether police need a warrant to obtain this information has occupied many hours in courtrooms.

The Arizona Supreme Court deliberated on this issue in a 2018 case. The case of State v. Jean considered the Fourth Amendment rights of Emilio Jean, a passenger in a truck who was charged with money laundering and transportation of marijuana. Police placed tracking devices on the vehicle and gained evidence through GPS.

Arizona court rules police need a warrant to use tracking evidence
Police need a warrant to use tracking evidence, Arizona court rules

The court concluded Jean was subjected to a warrantless search that violated his reasonable expectation of privacy and thus his Fourth Amendment rights. Although the court highlighted a “good faith exception” in the case because the officer did not think his actions were unlawful, the justices concluded passengers who are traveling in a private vehicle with its owner should have a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” This is violated by continually tracking the vehicle through a hidden GPS device.

The case is important because it sets limits on what police can legitimately do without a warrant. It follows cases in which the courts ruled police needed a warrant to obtain the evidence on a suspect’s smartphone.

Also in 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an important ruling that placed limits on the ability of investigators to obtain cellphone data that highlighted the previous location of criminal suspects in what was greeted as a major victory for digital privacy advocates.

A report in Reuters noted the court made a 5-4 ruling. The justices said police generally require a court-approved warrant to obtain data. The decision was important because it created a higher legal hurdle than under previous federal law.

Before the ruling, police routinely obtained data from wireless carriers from cellphone towers. The Supreme Court said this was an unreasonable search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The highest court in the land ruled in favor of Timothy Carpenter. He appealed his conviction for a string of armed robberies at Radio Shack and T-Mobile stores in Ohio and Michigan. The police used cellphone location data that showed he was close to the crime scenes at the time of the robberies.

Chief Justice John Roberts said the ruling did not affect other privacy issues such as whether police need warrants to get real-time cellphone location information to track suspects.

Police can use GPS to track someone in Arizona with a search warrant for probable cause or the permission of the owner. However, if GPS is used unlawfully a defense attorney can move to strike out the evidence.

Many defendants, particularly those with mental illnesses, are unaware of their rights. Phoenix-based attorney Bernardo Garcia can help you after an arrest. Please call him today at (602) 340-1999.