Ohio High Court Likely To Hear Warrantless GPS Tracking Case

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Photo: Flickr
Photo: Flickr

Whether police had the right to use GPS monitoring to catch a pair of Central Ohio home invasion suspects is going to the Ohio Supreme Court. Deputies put the device on the suspects’ car. The problem is they did not have a warrant. Prosecutors defend the deputies’ actions but civil libertarians say the case is an example of technology moving faster than the courts.

Police arrested Montie Sullivan and an accomplice in Columbus in January 2010 shortly after a Fairfield County home invasion. Franklin County prosecuting attorney Ron O’Brien says investigators quickly caught the men because police were monitoring their movements electronically.

“Because they had been tracked on this device the deputies were immediately at the scene and arrested them shortly thereafter,” O’Brien says.

Deputies say they were monitoring the pair because they were suspected in other home invasions. But the defendants say the use of the GPS monitor was illegal because deputies did not have a warrant to use it.

Last year Common Pleas Judge Michael Holbrook threw out some evidence in the case because deputies did not get a warrant to put the device on Sullivan’s car.

Two weeks ago an appeals court upheld the judge’s decision. Prosecutor O’Brien has asked the Ohio Supreme Court to rule on the matter.

The U.S. Supreme Court has dealt with this issue. In 2012 the court ruled in United States v. Jones that using a GPS tracking device constitutes a search under the Fourth Amendment. Professor Ric Simmons teaches law at Ohio State University.

“The key issue in the Jones case was whether or not the police could attach a GPS device to an automobile and track the person for 28 days. The Supreme Court said that law enforcement cannot do that without a warrant,” Simmons says.

But Franklin County sheriff’s deputies tracked Sullivan’s car – without a search warrant – two years before the U.S. Supreme Court rendered its decision. Because the court had not yet ruled on warrantless GPS monitoring, O’Brien says deputies acted appropriately.

“At the time, they were acting in good faith, and not contrary to law so, there weren’t any court decisions that said you can’t do that,” O’Brien says.

OSU law professor Ric Simmons says the Sullivan case hinges on timing.

“There’s no question going forward that they [the police] have to comply with U.S. Supreme Court precedent. But because they attached the GPS to this car before the Jones case came down, we have to decide whether or not it essentially applies retroactively; whether or not the police violated the law – even though they didn’t know what the law was at the time,” Simmons says.

The American Civil Liberties Union says it’s a perfect example of technology out-pacing the legal system. Gary Daniels is the Ohio ACLU’s associate director.

“Where technology has become so prevalent and so widespread and so affordable, there’s this very real issue of law enforcement using technology to surveill our whereabouts and who we’re talking to and a variety of other information about us and trying to fit it into a framework of past court decisions and thinking that did not take technology into account,” Daniels says.

O’Brien says police in Franklin County now obtain search warrants whenever they use tracking devices.