Warrantless Search with GPS Device

By February 22, 2013Warrantless Search

Warrantless Search GPS TrackingNew Case from the 5th Circuit (Federal):  United States v. Andres, 2013 U.S. App. LEXIS 143 (5th Cir. Tex. Jan. 3, 2013)

Synopsis:  In December 2009, federal agents conducting an investigation into a large drug trafficking operation installed a GPS device underneath a pick-up truck, with a trailer attached to it, while it was parked on a public street after it had been loaded with twenty kilos of cocaine. Federal agents monitored the truck’s movements as it drove toward Chicago.

The agents contacted the Illinois State Police, gave them information about the truck, and told them they would like to have the drugs discovered during a traffic stop so they would not have to disclose the existence of a federal investigation. After being provided GPS information on the truck, a police officer saw it on an interstate highway and began to follow it.

The officer conducted a traffic stop on the truck for improper lane usage and improper lighting after he saw the trailer was swaying back and forth within its lane and its taillights were flickering.  After the officer wrote a warning ticket, he asked Appellant to get out of the truck so he could talk to him about the taillight problem.

After inspecting the electrical connection between the truck and trailer, the officer handed Appellant his clipboard so he could sign the ticket.  While Appellant was signing the ticket, the officer asked him where he was coming from.  Appellant told the officer he was coming from Joliet, but the officer knew this could not be possible based on the surveillance the officers had been conducting.  The officer also noticed that Appellant had begun to fidget and move his feet and arms around very nervously.  When the officer asked Appellant if he had any drugs in the truck, he said, “No” and then consented to a search with a drug dog.  The drug dog alerted and the officers found twenty kilos of cocaine hidden in the truck.

Appellant argued the drug evidence should have been suppressed because the initial traffic stop was a pretext and not based on any actual traffic offense.  Even if the traffic stop was valid, Appellant claimed the officer’s continued questioning and dog search were not reasonably related to the original reasons for the stop.

First, the court held the officer was justified in stopping Appellant based on the traffic violations he saw.  Second, the court held the officer’s continued seizure of Appellant after the reason for the initial traffic stop ended was supported by reasonable suspicion.  It was reasonable for the officer, who had stopped Appellant for a safety violation concerning his trailer, to ask him to get out of his truck to look at the trailer and discuss the problem.  In addition, the officer’s question, asking Appellant where he was coming from, occurred before the officer had finished dealing with the traffic offenses and did not extend the scope or duration of the stop. Appellant’s untruthful answer created reasonable suspicion that justified his continued detention, which ultimately led to the officer receiving consent to search the truck.

Appellant also argued the warrantless placement and use of the GPS device to monitor the movements of his truck violated the Fourth Amendment in light of the United States Supreme Court decision in U.S. v. Jones, decided in 2012. The Fifth Circuit Court declined to rule on whether warrantless GPS searches are per se unreasonable.  Even assuming a Fourth Amendment violation had occurred, the court held the evidence should not be suppressed in this case because in December 2009, it was objectively reasonable for agents in the Fifth Circuit to believe that warrantless GPS tracking was allowed under circuit precedent.