US Appeals Court Rules GPS Tracking Search Warrant Ruling Not Retroactive14 Aug 2012
In January 2012, the Supreme Court ruled in a landmark United States v. Jones case that attaching a GPS tracking device to a vehicle without a search warrant was considered an unlawful search and seizure.
However, last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled differently in the United States v. Pineda-Moreno case relating to warrantless GPS tracking of a vehicle. In the case, a three-judge panel upheld the criminal conviction in a case involving a suspected marijuana grower, who had his vehicle tracked by a GPS tracking device without first being issued a search warrant. Specifically, information gathered by law enforcement agents using a GPS tracking device prior to the Supreme Court’s January 2012 ruling necessitating the use of a warrant was deemed legal as evidence in the Pineda-Moreno case.
In the case, law enforcement officials attached a GPS tracking device to the suspect’s — Mr. Pineda-Morena’s — vehicle. The device was placed on Pineda-Moreno’s Jeep in 2007, after he was suspected of growing marijuana. The law enforcement agents did not obtain a warrant prior to attaching the GPS tracker device. (The tracking of Pineda-Moreno’s vehicle happened before the Supreme Court issued its ruling that GPS tracking devices triggered Fourth Amendment protections — and therefore required a warrant.)
Using tracking information, the Drug Enforcement Administration stopped Pineda-Moreno, and took him into its custody for violations of immigration. Later, at Pineda-Moreno’s home, two large garbage bags full of marijuana were found. As a result, Pineda-Moreno was sentenced to a 51-month prison term, with five years of probation.
“It’s important to note what the court did not do. It did not rule on whether, going forward, the government needs a warrant based on probable cause to attach a GPS device to a car. Given the privacy-invasive nature of location tracking, a warrant is the constitutionally-required minimum. This decision also does not affect defendants in other parts of the country whose cases are outside the Ninth Circuit’s jurisdiction. Nevertheless, it’s crucial that Americans’ privacy is maintained in the face of ever more powerful government surveillance tools”, wrote Catherine Crump, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
Even so, other defendants who were tracked with a GPS tracking device prior to the Supreme Court issuing its decision in the United States v. Jones case, and are in the jurisdiction of the Ninth Circuit, may see the same ruling in their cases as a result of this United States v. Pineda-Moreno ruling.