The Ohio Court of Appeals ruled on Monday that police do not need to obtain a warrant before attaching a GPS tracking device to anyone’s vehicle. The case arose after paid informants told the Butler County Sheriff’s Office that Sudinia Johnson was involved in selling cocaine. Acting on this information, Detective Mike Hackney attached a pager-sized GPS tracker to the undercarriage of Johnson’s white Chevy van.
The GPS unit uploaded information regarding the van’s location to a website that Hackney regularly checked. This information was used to follow the van from Chicago back to Ohio, with police prepared to make a traffic stop with drug-sniffing canines as soon as Johnson entered Butler County, as long as “they were able to find probable cause to make a stop,” according to Hackney’s testimony.
Johnson allegedly made an improper right-hand turn — one police later admitted was a perfectly safe maneuver — and was pulled over and searched. No drugs were found after two thorough searches, but Johnson admitted to police that “you guys got me.” He then proceeded to admit he was going to sell cocaine that he picked up in Chicago that was in another vehicle. In court, Johnson’s lawyer argued that both the traffic stop and the GPS tracking violated the law. A trial judge did not agree and Johnson was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in jail. The three-judge appellate panel found no fault with this outcome.
“We find that placing the GPS on the van and monitoring its movement did not constitute a search or seizure under either the federal or Ohio Constitution,” Judge Robert A. Hendrickson wrote for the court. “Johnson did not produce any evidence that demonstrated his intention to guard the undercarriage of his van from inspection or manipulation by others…. Supreme Court precedent has established not only that a vehicle’s exterior lacks a reasonable expectation of privacy, but also that one’s travel on public roads does not implicate Fourth Amendment protection against searches and seizures.”
Last week, however, the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit specifically rejected this line of reasoning (view opinion). The Ohio judges also rejected the contrary rulings of the highest courts in New York, Oregon and Washington state on the grounds that their state constitutions offered greater protections from government intrusion than Ohio’s.
“Essentially, Johnson argues that should law enforcement be permitted to install and monitor GPS devices without first obtaining a warrant, the government has unfettered and instantaneous access to a person’s whereabouts,” Hendrickson wrote. “We do not disagree with Johnson that GPS surveillance could report a person’s location at these or any location. However, Johnson fails to recognize that when a person chooses to drive their vehicle to the minister, psychiatrist, abortion clinic, etc, they are voluntarily letting that fact be known to anyone on the roads, or anyone choosing to follow them, of their intended destination. Law enforcement need not obtain a warrant to observe where a driver chooses to drive on public roads, nor do they need to obtain a warrant to observe via a GPS device where a driver chooses to drive.”
A copy of the decision is available in a 75k PDF file at the source link below.