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GA Court of Appeals Finds Warrant for GPS Device Unlawful

August 20, 2013

The Georgia Court of Appeals reversed the defendants convictions for burglary and possession of tools for the commission of a crime, holding that the trial court erred in denying their motion to suppress evidence obtained through a GPS tracking device which the police placed on the defendants’ vehicle.

Evidence showed that on August 5, 2010, someone committed a burglary at a residence in Fulton County. The next evening, a man unknown to the homeowner came to the house and offered to perform yard work, despite the fact that it was raining. The homeowner became suspicious and reported the tag number of the person’s vehicle to the police. A detective investigating the burglary determined the vehicle was registered to someone who had an outstanding arrest warrant for theft by receiving stolen property in connection with a January 2010 burglary. Based on this information, the detective applied for and was granted a court order from the Superior Court of Cobb County which authorized him to place a GPS tracking device on the vehicle.

Police officers monitoring the tracking device observed that the vehicle was stopped for 28 minutes at a home in Sandy Springs. A Sandy Springs officer initiated a traffic stop and subsequently arrested the defendants and charged them with burglary.

The defense attorneys moved to suppress the evidence seized as a result of the traffic stop, contending that both the placement of the GPS device and the traffic stop were unlawful. The trial court denied the motion, finding that “even warrantless…monitoring of signals from inside an automobile traveling on public roads does not constitute an unreasonable search or seizure because it does not reveal anything that could not be observed through visual surveillance.”

The Georgia Court of Appeals, citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in United States v. Jones, first noted that the use of a GPS device to monitor a vehicle’s movements constituted a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. Therefore, the warrant authorizing it must be supported by probable cause. The Court then held that there were insufficient facts to establish probable cause in order to justify the use of the device. The Court pointed out that there was no evidence that the defendants were involved in the January or August burglaries or that the specific vehicle had been used in either burglary.

With the suppression of the evidence obtained as a result of the GPS device and the traffic stop, the remaining evidence would be insufficient to find either defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Therefore, the Court of Appeals reversed the defendants’ convictions.

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