The Warrantless GPS Fallout From State v. Johnson

On November 13, 2014, the Supreme Court of Ohio handed down its decision in State v. Johnson, Slip Opinion No. 2014-Ohio-5021. In a unanimous opinion, the court held that the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule precluded suppression of evidence obtained from a GPS placed under the defendant’s car without a warrant. Read the analysis of the merit decision in the case here.

Based on the decision in Johnson, the court reversed, without opinion, four courts of appeals decisions in related cases. In each case, the warrantless placement of the GPS on the defendant’s vehicle occurred before the 2012 United States Supreme Court decision in United States v. Jones, which held that the warrantless placement of a GPS is a search under the Fourth Amendment. The four cases, briefly summarized below, were remanded to the trial courts for further proceedings.

State v. Allen, 2013-Ohio-4188 (8th Dist.)

From July through October of 2010, a string of burglaries occurred in the cities of Lyndhurst, Shaker Heights, Maple Heights, South Euclid, and Highland Heights, Ohio. After determining the license plate of a suspicious person seen at the location of one of the burglaries, police officers obtained a magnetic GPS and attached it to the undercarriage of the suspect’s vehicle. After cross referencing new burglary sites with the location from the GPS, police stopped the vehicle and observed numerous electronic devices in plain view. The officers arrested the defendant and searched his apartment to find more stolen electronic devices.

The defendant filed a motion to suppress the evidence seized on the grounds that the GPS tracking device was placed on the vehicle without a search warrant. The trial court granted the motion to suppress.

On appeal, the state argued that the trial court erred when it granted the defendant’s motion to suppress because the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule applied. The Eighth Appellate District, however, applied a strict interpretation of Davis v. United States, and found that the exception did not apply due to the lack of binding jurisdictional precedent. The ruling of the trial court granting the motion to suppress was affirmed.

State v. Sullivan, 2013-Ohio-5276 (5th Dist.) & State v. White, 2013-Ohio-5221 (5th Dist.)

Following a series of home invasions believed to be committed by the same person or persons, the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office identified a white Honda Civic driven by co-defendants White and Sullivan. After constant visual surveillance of the vehicle proved difficult, the officers attached a magnetic GPS device under the vehicle’s bumper without a warrant. Using the GPS the police saw the vehicle drive slowly through neighborhoods around Fairfield County. Subsequently, the officers learned that a home invasion occurred in one of the neighborhoods.

A search warrant was issued for the defendants’ residence and vehicle. Officers found property from a recent robbery as well as property from previous robberies. The defendants were indicted on one count of improperly discharging a firearm, at or into a habitation, with two firearm specifications; one count of aggravated burglary, with two firearm specifications; and one count of grand theft, with a firearm specification.

Both defendants filed a motion to suppress the information gleaned from the warrantless use of the GPS device but the trial court overruled their motions.

On October 19, 2010, defendant Sullivan entered a plea of no contest and was sentenced to 19 years in prison. On November 22, 2010, defendant White entered a plea of no contest and was sentenced to serve 25 years in prison. Sullivan and White both appealed the denial of the suppression motions in 2011-Ohio-4967 and 2011-Ohio-4526, respectively. On this first appeal, the Fifth District reversed the trial court after conducting a Katz analysis finding that the warrantless GPS tracking violated the defendants’ reasonable expectation of privacy.

These two appeals were originally held by the Supreme Court of Ohio for the first decision in the Sudinia Johnson case. Then, as with Johnson, the judgments were vacated and the cases remanded to apply the decision in United States v. Jones (which found warrantless GPS tracking a search under trespass theory instead of an expectation of privacy analysis). The trial court then sustained both motions to suppress and the state appealed arguing the good-faith exception.

Looking to other state statutes as well as the “societal understandings” of the invasive nature of prolonged GPS monitoring, the Fifth Appellate District, relying on Jones, declined to apply the good-faith exception and affirmed the trial court decision sustaining the motions to suppress.

State v. Sullivan, 2013-Ohio-1443 (10th Dist.)

This proceeding stems from the same conduct of the home invasions—described in the above case adjudicated in the Fifth District—that occurred in Franklin County. The trial court, which had originally denied the motion to suppress, granted the motion on reconsideration after Jones was released. As in the Fifth District, the Tenth Appellate District declined to apply the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule. “We concur in the decisions of our sister districts [in Henry, Allen and Allen] and, accordingly, hold that, in the absence of “binding appellate precedent” authorizing the warrantless installation and monitoring of a GPS device, the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule does not apply. In the instant case, at the time the GPS device was attached to defendant’s vehicle, January 14, 2010, no “binding appellate precedent” authorized the warrantless attachment and monitoring of a GPS device.” The appeals court held that any evidence obtained as a result of the unlawful search had to be suppressed.

Student Contributor: Cameron Downer

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