What You and Your Passengers Need to Know about Police GPS Tracking

Your Rights and Arizona GPS laws 

The U.S. Supreme Court previously held that Global Positioning System (GPS) tracking on a driver’s vehicle comprises a search under the 4th amendment. This means that police need a warrant to conduct GPS tracking on a vehicle owned or driven by a suspect when the vehicle is legally in their possession.

Earlier this year, the Arizona Supreme Court issued a landmark opinion in an Arizona drug trafficking case in which the passenger in a GPS tracked vehicle was arrested in addition to the suspect driver.

In the case, the Arizona Supreme Court ultimately affirmed the defendant’s conviction, finding that the officers who conducted the search relied on previous case law in place, that held the conduct was permissible.  With that, the court determined that the police acted properly and did not suppress the evidence, based on the good faith exception.

However, the court decided that moving forward police should obtain a warrant before engaging in this type of investigation.  The court held that passengers who are not aware that a vehicle is being tracked by GPS, has a reasonable expectation of privacy while traveling in it.

This article provides the following:

  • An overview of the court’s decision and it’s impact on Arizona;
  • 3 circumstances in which it is lawful for police to conduct vehicle GPS tracking;
  • Explanation of the exclusionary rule;
  • Explanation of the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule;
  • Impact on your case when police obtaining evidence illegally;
  • How to get evidence dismissed that was obtained unlawfully;
  • Explanation of other legal issues central to this court opinion;
  • What a criminal defense attorney can do to help you resolve your charges

Case Overview and Decision 

The defendant and another man were driving a tractor-trailer from Georgia to Arizona. The truck belonged to the other man, but both shared the driving responsibilities.

The truck was registered as “Swiff,” but the truck was marked “Swift.” Arizona police ran the tags and noticed that the truck came back as stolen, but also registered to the man they later learned was driving the truck with the defendant.

Believing that the truck was being used to transport narcotics, police placed a GPS tracking device on the truck without obtaining a warrant. At the time, the officers did not know the defendant was in the truck.

Over the course of three days, police tracked the truck as it entered Arizona. Police observed the owner of the truck exit, conduct a hand-to-hand transaction, and then get back into the truck. Later, the truck traveled to California, stopped at a warehouse, and then came back through Arizona. Overall, police tracked the truck for 31 hours over three days.

Using the GPS tracking device to locate the truck, police pulled the truck over. At the time, the other man was driving, and the defendant was asleep in the cabin area. Both men denied officers’ requests to search the car. However, after a drug-detection dog signaled an alert, the officers searched the truck and found over 2,000 pounds of marijuana.

The defendant filed a pre-trial motion to suppress, arguing that the police conducted a warrantless search by placing the GPS tracking device on the truck, and in so doing violated his Fourth and 14th Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution, as well as his rights under Article II, section 8 of the Arizona Constitution.

The court composed a detailed opinion, making several important holdings. First, the court held that the defendant had a reasonable expectation of privacy while he was a passenger who only occasionally drove the vehicle. Thus, the police officers’ conduct was classified as a “search” under U.S. Supreme Court case law. As a result, the court held that the officers should have obtained a warrant prior to placing the GPS tracking device.

The court, however, ended up deciding that the defendant’s motion should be denied based on the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule. This was because at the time the police used GPS to track the suspect, police relied on case law in place was favorable to their conduct.

Arizona’s good-faith rule allows for illegally obtained evidence to be introduced at trial if the officer conducting the search was relying in good faith on an honestly held belief that the conduct was not illegal.

Here, the court explained that the officers’ conduct was based on an “objectively reasonable good-faith belief that their conduct [was] lawful” Thus, the court held that the exclusionary rule should not apply, and the evidence should not be suppressed.

What impact does this opinion have on Arizona?

Arizona Supreme Court rulings have potential to influence cases in the future with the same or similar questions that arise in the future and stands as case law in the state.

Unless an exception to the warrant applies, it will be necessary for law enforcement to obtain a valid search warrant if they wish to conduct GPS tracking on a vehicle in order to monitor the activities of the driver and passenger.

                      When can police legally track a vehicle with GPS?                                 

Police can legally use GPS tracking on the vehicle you own or lawfully drive with a valid search warrant for probable cause; with your consent or the consent of a joint owner of the vehicle, or someone else who has lawful possession or control over the vehicle consents to GPS tracking; or with  an exception to the warrant.

Exceptions to a warrant are specific circumstances recognized by the courts as those where the search can be conducted, when a warrant would otherwise be required.

One example is in the case of exigent circumstances.  This  applies when police reasonably believe that evidence is at risk of being destroyed, eliminated, or removed, before police can obtain a valid warrant.

Another exception includes situations that pose a threat to public safety.  If police reasonably believe that GPS tracking on the vehicle is necessary because the situation presents an immediate threat to the public, the life of the officers or others, they can proceed without a warrant.

What is the exclusionary rule in criminal cases?

The exclusionary rule is a remedy adopted the courts which allows for suppression of evidence when it is obtained by police unlawfully in violation of a person’s rights.

The purpose of the rule is to discourage law enforcement from violating a person’s rights in an effort to obtain evidence.

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that the exclusionary rule applies when the manner in which the law enforcement officer behaves is “deliberate, reckless, grossly negligent,” or “recurring and systematic negligence.”

What is the “good-faith exception” to the exclusionary rule?

Exceptions exist for the exclusionary rule that serves to avoid penalizing police when their actions were reasonable under the circumstances.   The “good faith exception” is an example of one of them.  It applies when evidence was reasonably obtained by police because they relied on case law or particular statutes at the time, which was later reversed or overturned.

Another example where the good- faith exception applies is when police make an arrest based on a warrant that later turns out to be invalid.

What happens if police get evidence illegally, and then arrest me? 

When police violate your rights in an effort to obtain evidence that leads to your arrest, your criminal defense attorney can move to suppress the evidence against you.  If the court agrees to exclude the evidence, this often results in a dismissal of the charges

How can I get evidence dismissed that was obtained illegally by Police?

The most effective way to challenge evidence obtained unlawfully, is by retaining a private practice criminal  attorney to represent you.   Your criminal defense attorney will evaluate the facts, and if applicable will file a motion with the court to prevent it from being used against you. If the judge agrees, the evidence will not be used to prosecute you in the case.  In some instances, another hearing will be required for the court to rule on the issue.   

Trying to deal with the charges on your own without a criminal defense attorney can result in a harsh and swift conviction.  It is important that you consult a criminal defense attorney in the jurisdiction where you received the charges, well before your first court date.

The prosecution represents the state and their sole purpose is to prosecute your charges and obtain a conviction.  The judge has no obligation to point our flaws in the prosecution’s case, obtain favorable evidence, or to help you get a favorable resolution.

How can a criminal defense attorney help me resolve my charges?

Facing prosecuting of drug charges can be a traumatic and overwhelming event.  Attorney James understands this.  He will guide you through every phase of the legal process, and be your voice in the criminal justice system.

If retained, Criminal defense attorney, James Novak, of the Law Office of James Novak will evaluate the facts, evidence, and circumstances.

If your rights were violated, or other grounds exist, he will make every effort to get the charges exist.

If i is impossible to get the criminal charges dismissed, James Novak ill work closely with the prosecution to negotiate the best possible resolution. Some favorable resolutions for drug offenses include but are not limited to the following:

  • No jail or reduction of incarceration time in return for successful completion of special drug treatment program;
  • Reduction of charges to a lesser offense in the same classification;
  • Reduction of classification of charges for example a felony down to misdemeanor;
  • Probation as an alternative to serving jail or prison terms;
  • Reduction of incarceration time;
  • Reduction or elimination of fines
  • Elimination of the risk maximum sentencing

If an acceptable resolution cannot be reached, you still have the right to take your charges to trial.  James Novak is an  experienced former prosecutor and highly skilled criminal defense litigator. James Novak will explain the pros and cons of taking your case to trial based on the strength or weaknesses of your case.  If retained for trial, James Novak will provide strong legal representation for your trial.

If you have recently been arrested for a crime involving either drugs or guns, you should contact the Law Office of James E. Novak.  James Novak is a dedicated Arizona drug crime defense attorney with over 20 years of personal experience representing those charged with serious crimes in Arizona. Attorney Novak works tirelessly to uphold the rights of those accused of Arizona drug offenses and other crimes. To learn more, call 480-413-1499 or complete our contact form  to schedule a free consultation for your drug charges.

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