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Appeals court rules GPS unit legally placed on suspect's car

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Kevin Murphy
August 11, 2011
— Walworth County authorities legally attached a GPS unit to a car that led them to two serial burglars, a state appeals court ruled Wednesday.

Authorities didn't violate James G. Brereton's constitutional rights against illegal search and seizure because they obtained a search warrant after they pulled over and impounded his car in a ploy to attach a Global Positioning System device under the hood, the District 4 Court of Appeals found.


Rock and Walworth county authorities in October 2007 were investigating a series of 35 burglaries along the county line when they received a license plate number and description of a car seen at a burglary.


Police pulled over the suspect car and found Brereton and his later-to-be codefendant, Brian J. Conaway, inside. They also found that Brereton had a revoked driver's license, and that the plates didn't match the car's vehicle identification number.


While Brereton, 45, and Conaway, 43, waited, police had the car towed, obtained a 60-day search warrant, attached the GPS, and returned the car without telling Brereton and Conaway about the device.


The device monitored the car's location in real time. When it moved, it sent text messages to a detective's cell phone. Four days later, police matched the car's location to a reported burglary.


Police located the car, pulled it over and arrested Brereton and Conaway, who had items from a recent burglary, according to the appeals decision.


Brereton was charged in Walworth County with several counts of burglary.


He pleaded guilty after his motion to suppress the evidence was dismissed.


Judge Michael Gibbs sentenced Brereton in November 2009 to seven years in prison, five years extended supervision and $3,295 in restitution, according to online court records.


Conaway received the same sentence and also is appealing his convictions.


Appeals attorney Matthew Pinix argued that the evidence obtained from the GPS should be tossed out because the car was unlawfully seized and the GPS device was more technologically advanced and intrusive than the search warrant allowed.


Pinix contended the warrant permitted only periodic recordings of the suspect vehicle's location that could be downloaded later and not real-time tracking.


The court agreed that the device was more intrusive but said it didn't infringe on Brereton's right against unreasonable search and seizure.


"(We) see no reason to find that the police overstepped their bounds simply because they were able to monitor the movements in real time rather than needing to continually return to the car, remove the device, and download its information to a computer" wrote Judge Richard Brown.


Pinix said he would ask Brereton if the case should be further appealed.


The decision puts law enforcement on notice that they need to obtain a search warrant before concealing a GPS on a vehicle, he said.


"This is quite a change in (Wisconsin) law and is favorable to the civil rights of the state's citizens," he said.


A call to a spokesman for the Walworth County Sheriff's Office wasn't returned before deadline.



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