By on December 1, 2010

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.

Source: PDF File Ohio v. Johnson (Court of Appeals, State of Ohio, 11/29/2010)


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29 Comments on “Ohio Appeals Court Upholds Warrantless GPS Tracking...”

  • avatar
    Larry P2

    And the police  have not the foggiest idea of why the public viscerally hates them.
    This massive police/prison/industrial complex that has arisen is no longer financially sustainable. No police state of this dimension and scope has historically remained economically viable.
    Hello, 1984, albeit 16 years late.

    Have you ever noticed that such high-tech orwellian surveillance is just not available to find the perp who burglarized your garage? The police are now revenue collectors and drug warriors. They could give a shit about your personal safety or property.

  • avatar

    The judge said “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.”
    Note that he said ‘anyone’ and not just police.

    Since he sees attaching a GPS device no different than using ones eyes to observe, the judge should have no problem with a civil liberties group tracking his family’s vehicles constantly and reporting its whereabouts on a web site. Just simple observation.

    Somehow though, he would invoke a special exception for himself due to his sensitive job.

    • 0 avatar

      Nah, you’re way behind the times. Reason went out the window at least a century ago in this place. Now, it’s all about privilege, and about spewing political class aggrandizing nonsense to cheering crowds of public school indoctrinated half literates. “It’s the law”, and “we have found….”, so much for rule of law over rule of man.
      The upside is, ever cheaper and smaller GPS devices, along with mesh networks, will eventually make them difficult to detect even for our overlords. Restoring some level of symmetry, I suppose.

    • 0 avatar

      There was a case recently where the FBI (warrantlessly) put a GPS tracker on a citizen’s car, and the owner discovered it during an oil change. He was naturally pissed off and tried to sell the device; the FBI threatened to prosecute him for theft and demanded it back.

      Thanks, all you ‘Patriot Act’ security-state enthusiasts who wet your pants with fear on command from the mass media.

  • avatar
    Larry P2

    BTW, have you ever experienced the police exerting this much effort and exotic technology trying to hunt down the perp who burglarized your garage? I don’t know about where you live, but unless you have already clear and convincing evidence of the identity of the burglar where I live, they will not even take your theft report!
    And one day as I was coming home on I-90, I watched eight state troopers on some sort of “emphasis patrol” pounce on three drivers each in a beautifully synchronized ballet of fascism. I complained to my state senator that the cops obviously had way too much time on their hands to indulge in such a make work project and I never saw such an abomination again.
    Now that the courts have abandoned any pretext of concern for our constitutional rights, the only remaining alternative for reigning in these fascists is to take a meat axe to their budgets. Starve ’em until they scream.

    • 0 avatar

      Stop your whining, Larry! After all it’s for your own good. Now, just come over here and stand on those footprint silhouettes on the floor so we can pat you down all over, and take off your damn shoes!

  • avatar

    I bet the private consumer sales of those long, telescoping mirrors for checking under a vehicle are skyrocketing.

    • 0 avatar

      I wonder what would happen if you entered an airport during an “orange” alert and the airport police spotted a “suspicious” device attached to the undercarriage of your vehicle using one of those mirrors?

  • avatar

    How hard is it to get a warrant these days?  This just sounds like laziness on the part of prosecutors and law enforcement.

  • avatar
    Larry P2

    Why would anyone bother to get a warrant? The courts are anxious and supine in their panting eagerness to find an “exception” to the warrant requirement nowadays, knowing that the “law” enforcement lobby is a lethal obstacle to reelection on the grounds of “coddling criminals.” No, the courts rarely find the necessity of warrants in this ongoing drug war. (I am not aware of the occupation troops in Iraq or Afghanistan ever having obtained a warrant to search a house.)
    Recently, in our local newspaper, a law enforcement honcho perhaps unintentionally let the cat out of the bag and argued that employing military tactics to subdue the local enemy combatants (that would be you and me) is legitimate police tactics. We wouldn’t get all bent out of shape installing a GPS tracker to a terrorist suspect in Iraq, would we?

  • avatar

    There was a time we expected our military to treat people as civilly as we ourselves expect to be treated.  Now that seems to have been stood on its end to justify both foreign wars and domestic repression.
    I could make a comment about the terrorists winning, but at the same time so are local authorities.  To steal a line from Baron Munchhausen, ‘it’s Wednesday.’

  • avatar

    It seems that virtually all of these warrantless GPS tracking cases involve drug enforcement. I wonder if more sensible drug policies would reduce the use of GPS trackers?

    • 0 avatar

      They’d find some other nonsense to scare the rabble with. Terrorists, child porn, white supremacists, minorities, whatever.
      Remember, the entire purpose of the charade is scaring enough yahoos into believing paying union leech salaries and benefits to ever growing bands of politically correct backmarkers, is somehow “an important function of the state”, or somesuch drivel. Nothing more, nothing less, and will never be any different.
      Back when America was at least a semi civilized country, “the police” were deputized civilians. As were fire crews, and most others in public “service”. Not self aggrandizing public sector union leeches on the make. But that was a long time ago, before universal indoctrination by yet another band of leeches somehow got confused with “education.”

  • avatar

    Can’t you commoners simply obey your masters?
    Obviously the educational system is failing since it is a prime instrument for the better class and corporate USA to instill the proper thoughts and behaviors into the commoners.
    You DO support the troops, don’t you?
    Love it or leave it.
    Just OBEY you uppity nobodies.
    “There’s class warfare, all right, Mr. (Warren) Buffett said, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

  • avatar

    I’m fairly libertarian in views, and I’m an attorney, but still this is rightly decided.  Observation of an individual and tracking of their whereabouts is not protected under the 4th amendment.  Clearly they could have tailed this person, or employed satellite technology to accomplish the same goal, all without a warrant.  If they entered the person’s garage to place the device, or put it inside the car, we’d have a problem.  Travel on the public roads is just that, public.
    What’s dodgy here is the traffic stop.  They should have focused on that.  If you’re worried about being tracked, check your car for trackers and if you find them, run them over or attach them to other cars.  You’re free to do that as well.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      If you’re worried about being tracked, check your car for trackers and if you find them, run them over or attach them to other cars.  You’re free to do that as well.
      I love it, sounds like the beginning of dang entertaining article by Jack Baruth.  Forget chaining the axles of cop cars to telephone poles, just attach a tracker from under a suspects car to a black and white CVPI.

    • 0 avatar

      My car is my property.  Nobody, including the police has the right to mess with it without my permission, and that includes installing a GPS tracker.  Parking on the street is not consent to have your car tampered with.

    • 0 avatar

      If you live in southern CA, attach it to the nearest car with Baja plates. Wish the cops good luck getting their Stasi Toy back from Mexico.

    • 0 avatar
      George B

      I mostly agree with slance, the big problem here is selective enforcement of traffic laws in hopes of making a larger bust.  There is also the issue of no drugs in the car that they tracked.
      I also have a problem with law enforcement physically adding something extra to a car to reduce their cost of tracking that person.  The state already requires license plates so identifying an individual car can be done with some effort.  Adding the GPS receiver/tracking transmitter just makes casting the net in search of law breaking easy and cheap.

    • 0 avatar

      slance, you’re making the same huge leap of logic as the judges.
      In no way is a stealthy robotic bugging device running 24/7 via orbiting satellites the same as a beat cop observing a single car with his human eyes.
      I suppose you think the steam shovel was simply an equivalent of John Henry.

      Afterall, isn’t a listening bug on your phone line just a technical enhancement of the officers natural hearing ability?

    • 0 avatar

      Hear, hear!

  • avatar

    i guess we can buy receivers to pick up tracker transmitting signals, and what are they called?
    an old dude once told me, before the Naam war there was hardly any coccaine in USofA.
    he was an old army guy, was a MilitaryPolice too.
    what goes around comes around, and wonder what will bring back with iraq & afghan war?

    • 0 avatar

      I think we already have plenty of heroin. I don’t think Afghanistan can put out anything better, but maybe Saddam was working on some new synthetic that will replace crack after the CIA perfects the formula…

  • avatar

    “Johnson did not produce any evidence that demonstrated his intention to guard the undercarriage of his van from inspection or manipulation by others…”
    I’m surprised that they mentioned this.  Does this mean all those gimmicks to prevent photo radar from seeing your license plate are legal?

  • avatar
    Larry P2

    Yes, the cops knew they wanted to stop the suspect after tracking him diligently with the GPS, so they waited until he committed a traffic infraction to stop him.

    Yeah, right. In the olden days, this would have been called a “pretext,” and the case thrown out of court. However the courts, in their eagerness to bend over the table and grab their ankles before “law” enforcement, have done away with that concept.

    Now, it is an “objective” standard. In other words, the cop can lie about the real reason for the stop and wait until someone inevitably commits some traffic infraction to justify the stop.

    And even if the cop video demonstrates conclusively that the traffic infraction did not occur, the courts will noetheless uphold the stop.

  • avatar

    The idea to put tracking devices on cop cars has already been done, and it ended with the guy and his girlfriend going to jail in Phoenix. Apparently it is not a two way street.

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