Law enforcement officers have, in recent years, come to rely on GPS technology to assist in vehicle surveillance.  However, in 2012, the United States Supreme Court decided the United States v. Jones [i], in which they held that the government’s installation and use of such GPS devices to monitor a suspect’s movements constituted a “search” under the Fourth Amendment.  This left some question as to whether evidence obtained by GPS prior to the Jones decision would be suppressed in court.

Recently, the First Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Sparks [ii], in which they addressed the admissibility of evidence obtained by the installation and monitoring of a GPS device on a vehicle before the Supreme Court decided Jones.  The facts of Sparks are as follows:

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) suspected Sparks of committing three bank robberies in late 2009. Accordingly, in the early hours of December 24, 2009, FBI agents affixed a GPS tracker to a black Chrysler sedan registered to Sparks’s mother but used by Sparks himself. At the time, the Chrysler was parked in a private parking lot used by tenants of two adjacent residential buildings, including Sparks himself. The agents did not have a warrant to place the tracker on the car.

The GPS tracker enabled the agents to track the car’s location in real time by logging onto a website. The tracker had its own battery and thus drew no power from the car. In fact, the tracker’s battery failed shortly after installation, prompting the agents to replace the battery and reattach the tracker on December 29.

On January 4, 2010 (eleven days after the tracker’s initial installation), the agents, using the tracker, located the Chrysler in Waltham, Massachusetts. When the agents reached the car at approximately 12:15 p.m., it was parked near the intersection of Ash and Crescent Streets, unoccupied but with the engine running. The agents took up position nearby to watch the car.

Roughly ten minutes later and two blocks away, two men entered the Bank of America branch on Moody Street, wearing dark clothing and ski masks and brandishing what appeared to be handguns. They demanded money. After obtaining approximately $10,676 in cash, they left the bank, and fled in a red SUV with the license plate number 4205YN.

Moments later, the same red SUV pulled up across from the Chrysler and two men in dark hooded sweatshirts, one of whom carried a dark-colored bag, emerged. They ran to the Chrysler, climbed in, and drove off. The watching agents tried to follow, but became ensnarled in traffic. Thanks to the GPS tracker, however, they located the Chrysler heading north on Route 128 and caught up to it. As the car passed through Lexington, a Massachusetts State Police cruiser attempted to pull it over, but the Chrysler’s driver slammed on the brakes, sending the car into a ditch along the side of the highway. The two occupants fled into the woods, temporarily evading the agents’ grasp.

A quick search of the car revealed two BB guns that resembled the weapons brandished by the bank robbers. A subsequent, more thorough search uncovered further incriminating evidence, including clothing and latex gloves like those worn by the robbers, a knife and a dagger, identification belonging to both defendants, and a screwdriver. (The latter was relevant because the red SUV’s ignition had been “popped,” allowing it to be started with a screwdriver. The SUV turned out to have been stolen in Charlestown.) Investigators also found, in the woods into which the suspects fled, $1,381 in cash and a bag containing two dark hooded sweatshirts.

The Lexington Police apprehended defendant Michaud later that afternoon. He was found with roughly $9,284 in cash (bearing money bands from the bank), two black ski masks, and white latex gloves. He was also wearing mismatched shoes, the mates of which were found in the Chrysler. Sparks proved somewhat harder to catch; he was ultimately collared in Maine a few weeks later. [iii]

Later, Sparks filed a motion to suppress the evidence obtained by use of the GPS tracking device.  The district court, relying on the United States v. Knotts [iv] which was controlling United States Supreme Court precedent at that time, denied the motion and held that the use of the GPS was not a search.  In Knotts, the Supreme Court held that the use of a radio-based tracking device on a vehicle as it traveled on public roads was a not a “search” under the Fourth Amendment because a person traveling in public has no reasonable expectation of privacy in his movements from one place to another.  Sparks pleaded guilty with a right to appeal.  He subsequently appealed the denial of the motion to suppress to the First Circuit Court of Appeals.

Meanwhile, the United States Supreme Court decided the United States v. Jones [v], which involved the installation and monitoring of a GPS device for approximately one month.  Writing of the decision in Jones, the First Circuit stated:

[T]he Government’s installation of a GPS device on a target’s vehicle, and its use of that device to monitor the vehicle’s movements, constitutes a ‘search'” for Fourth Amendment purposes. 132 S. Ct. at 949 (footnote omitted). The Justices all agreed that a search had occurred, but differed as to why. The five-Justice majority held that a search occurred because “[t]he Government physically occupied private property for the purpose of obtaining information.” Id. The majority opinion emphasized that the government had committed a common-law trespass by installing the tracker on the defendant’s car. See id. at 949-50. [vi]

Thus, based on Jones, there were two issues before the First Circuit.  The first issue was whether the installation and monitoring of the GPS device on Sparks’ vehicle required a warrant.  The second issue was whether the evidence must be suppressed if a warrant was required.

The court then set out to decide the second issue, particularly, whether the evidence must be suppressed even if they later decide a warrant was required because this issue alone could be dispositive in Sparks’ case.  To this issue, the court examined the good faith exception to the exclusionary rule that was further clarified by the United States Supreme Court in their 2011 decision, Davis v. United States. [vii]  In Davis, the Supreme Court addressed the issue of whether evidence that was obtained during a search of a vehicle incident to arrest based upon reliance of New York v. Belton should be suppressed because the Supreme Court later modified the Belton rule in Arizona v. Gant.  The Supreme Court stated that the purpose of the exclusionary rule was to deter unlawful conduct by law enforcement. Therefore, if law enforcement officers are properly complying with valid precedent at the time of their conduct, and later a case is decided that renders that previous conduct unlawful, there is no deterrent effect because police cannot modify their conduct to conform to cases not yet decided.

Applying the principal from Davis to Sparks’ case, the court stated:

Thus, in Davis, where the police conducted a vehicle search incident to arrest that strictly complied with binding circuit precedent applying the bright-line rule of New York v. Belton453 U.S. 454, 101 S. Ct. 2860, 69 L. Ed. 2d 768 (1981), suppression of the resulting evidence was not appropriate even though Arizona v. Gant subsequently established that the vehicle search was unlawful. 131 S. Ct. at 2428. Under the same principle, if the warrantless installation and monitoring of the GPS tracker in this case was “objectively reasonable” under then-“binding appellate precedent,” suppression is not warranted, even if it turns out that the agents should have gotten a warrant first. Id. at 2423-24. [viii]

Therefore, the First Circuit had to decide whether agents were following valid binding precedent when they installed and monitored the GPS device on Sparks’ vehicle.  The court first noted that the precedent must be “clear and well-settled” for the good faith exception to apply.  The two cases relied upon to support the agents actions in this case are the United States Supreme Court case of the United States v. Knotts and the United States v. Moore [ix], from the First Circuit.  Describing Moore, the First Circuit stated:

In Moore, we considered the government’s warrantless installation and use of “beepers” (battery-powered radio transmitters) to track the movements of the defendants’ vehicles on public roads. 562 F.2d at 110-13. We concluded that “[w]hile a driver has no claim to be free from observation while driving in public, he properly can expect not to be carrying around an uninvited device that continuously signals his presence.” Id. at 112. Balancing these considerations and the needs of law enforcement, we held that “while the lessened expectancy of privacy associated with motor vehicles justifies the use of beepers without a warrant to track vehicles, this can be done only if the officers have probable cause at the time.” Id. at 112-13. Importantly for present purposes, we focused almost exclusively on the defendants’ privacy interests in their movements, dismissing “the trespass involved in affixing the beepers to the underbody of the vehicles” as “so minimal as to be of little consequence.” Id. at 111. [x]

Also, describing Knotts, the First Circuit stated:

In Knotts, the Court held that “[a] person traveling in an automobile on public thoroughfares has no reasonable expectation of privacy in his movements from one place to another.” 460 U.S. at 281. For that reason, the use of a beeper to track the defendant’s movements on public roads involved “neither a ‘search’ nor a ‘seizure’ within the contemplation of the Fourth Amendment.” Id. at 285. Knotts thus abrogated Moore’s probable-cause requirement for beeper surveillance, but it did not address the issue of a beeper’s installation on the defendant’s property, see id. at 286 (Brennan, J., concurring in the judgment), leaving undisturbed Moore’s conclusion that the trespass involved in attaching a beeper to a car was “of little consequence.” [xi]

The court then held that it was reasonable for the agents to use the GPS device in Sparks’ case based upon reliance on clear precedent.

However, the court noted that they did not decide the issue of whether any exceptions to the warrant requirement exist for future installation use of the GPS device to monitor suspect’s movements.  Therefore, future use of such GPS monitoring is governed under the United States v. Jones. [xii]

As such, the court of appeals affirmed the denial of the motion to suppress.


Note:  Court holdings can vary significantly between jurisdictions.  As such, it is advisable to seek the advice of a local prosecutor or legal adviser regarding questions on specific cases.  This article is not intended to constitute legal advice on a specific case.



[i] 132 S.Ct. 945 (2012)

[ii] 711 F.3d 58 (2013)

[iii] Id.

[iv] 460 U.S. 276 (1983)

[v] 132 S.Ct. 945 (2012)

[vi] Sparks, 711 F.3d 58

[vii] 131 S. Ct. 2419 (2011)

[viii] 711 F.3d at

[ix] 562 F.2d  106 (1st Cir. 1977)

[x] 711 F.3d at

[xi] Id.

[xii] 132 S.Ct. 945 (2012)

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