GPS technology can be a wonderful thing, just ask anyone with a terrible sense of direction what a godsend it can be. While the technology has many helpful, civilian uses it can also be used for other, more intrusive purposes. As a case before the U.S. Supreme Court recently highlighted (which we discussed here), GPS can also be used by police to help crack down on crime. The Court’s ruling, that police have to get a proper search warrant before using GPS technology to track criminal suspects, should help limit some abuses of this the technology. United States v. Jones, sets the current limit on warrantless GPS searches, but it does not resolve the issue completely.
The Jones case involved a nightclub owner in Washington, D.C., Antoine Jones, who had a GPS tracking device attached to his Jeep. As a result of the tracking, law enforcement officials were able to gather evidence which linked him to a house used to stash drugs and money. Jones’ movements were monitored for 28 days and he was convicted of conspiring to sell cocaine. A federal appeals court eventually overturned his drug conspiracy conviction because police did not have a warrant when they installed the GPS device on his vehicle.
Similar tactics have been used by some Tennessee law enforcement agencies, most famously in the Middle Tennessee case of Robert Jason Burdick, the so-called “Wooded Rapist.” The Brentwood Police Department tracked him with a GPS device back in 2008 after identifying him as a suspect. Burdick was accused of attacking multiple women since 1994. Michael Lindenberger reports about the issue in the Tennessean.com.
While at first glance it could appear that Burdick’s conviction could be overturned as a result of the recent Supreme Court decision, the reality is that things aren’t so simple, and Jones does not mean that all warrantless GPS tracking is illegal. Though it is probable that police in Brentwood violated Burdick’s constitutional rights, the timing sequence indicates it would likely not be grounds to overturn his conviction. Police only put the GPS device on his vehicle days before he was ultimately arrested and none of the evidence in his criminal case was gleaned from the device.
Captain Tommy Walsh of the Brentwood Police Department stands by the tactics his officers used to catch Burdick, saying that he’s confident the case could withstand any appeals that result from the recent Supreme Court ruling. The tracking device was “not used prominently in the Burdick case,” Walsh said. “It was used to keep track of him while we waited for the DNA results.”
Attorney John Herbison, a member of Burdick’s defense team, said he did not believe the ruling would be grounds for an appeal. “In the cases where I represented Mr. Burdick, I don’t think the government attempted to use any information obtained through the use of GPS.”
Even if it does not result in overturning Burdick’s conviction, the Jones case will prompt a review of law enforcement policies across the state to be sure that officers follow the directives of this emerging law. “This is a change, a significant change,” Walsh said of the ruling’s impact. “You’ll need to obtain a search warrant anytime you want to use a GPS device. It will slow down the process significantly.”
Not limited to a problem in Brentwood, Metropolitan Nashville Police Department spokesman Don Aaron confirmed the department had engaged in tracking and that the recent ruling would have an effect on their procedures in the future. “We have directed component commanders that, should any of their investigators need to use GPS tracking or other technology to gather evidence in the case, to consult with the local district attorney so any subpoena or warrant issues get resolved prior to the use of the technology.”
Law enforcement in the Tri-Cities, have said they do not make use of GPS tracking technology. What is the practice in Chattanooga, Hamilton County and North Georgia? Warrantless GPS tracking has been used by area law enforcement in the past, but I suspect that practice will change or be challenged in court.
Read: “Nashville, other police must get warrant to use GPS on suspects,” by Michael Lindenberger, published at Tennessean.com.