GPS ruling complicates investigations

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Tuesday, January 24, 2012
— Rock County investigators will need to jump through an extra hoop to use GPS tracking devices in investigations, but Monday's U.S. Supreme Court ruling will have little other effect, spokesmen for two agencies said Monday.

In Walworth County, investigators already had been getting search warrants to install the tracking devices, Deputy District Attorney Josh Grube said.

The federal high court Monday ruled police and FBI investigators violated Washington, D.C., nightclub owner Antoine Jones' Fourth Amendment rights when they installed a GPS device on Jones' Jeep. They used the device to link Jones to a suburban house used to stash money and drugs. He was sentenced to life in prison before an appeals court overturned the conviction.

Justice Antonin Scalia said the government's installation of a GPS device, and its use to monitor the vehicle's movements, constitutes a search, meaning that a warrant is required.

"By attaching the device to the Jeep" that Jones was using, "officers encroached on a protected area," Scalia wrote. He concluded that the installation of the device on the vehicle without a warrant was a trespass and therefore an illegal search.

All nine justices concurred, although their supporting reasons differed.

Rock County Sheriff's Office deputies regularly use GPS devices to track vehicles during burglary and drug investigations, among others, Sheriff Bob Spoden said. The obligation to get a search warrant before installing the device could complicate an investigation by requiring investigators to write an affidavit for search warrant and get that affidavit signed, Spoden said.

But Rock County investigators already had been doing what they would need to do to get the warrant signed, even though they weren't taking that formal step, Spoden said.

"It certainly is going to make our job more difficult," Spoden said. "However, whenever we make that decision (to install a tracking device), we always have enough evidence and enough probable cause to get a search warrant."

Investigations can be fast-paced, and getting search warrants can be cumbersome, Spoden said. In some cases, investigators could get a tip that a suspect's vehicle is parked somewhere for a certain amount of time, Spoden said as an example.

"It really creates a very narrow window," he said.

Sgt. Jim Holford with the Janesville Police Department's street crimes unit said Janesville investigators also have been getting enough information to seek a search warrant, even though they weren't getting warrants to install GPS units.

"It shouldn't affect us in any other way except for giving us another layer of paperwork to complete," he said.

Investigators decide to install GPS devices based on probable cause, Holford said.

"Now, we'll just have to articulate that probable cause, and have that documented in the affidavit for the search warrant prior to placing the GPS device on a vehicle, "Holford said.

If asked, the Supreme Court could rule in the future on other aspects of using GPS in investigations. In another concurring opinion Monday, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that the act of trespassing by installing the device was not as important as the suspect's expectation of privacy.

In the Jones case, police monitored the Jeep's movements for four weeks after attaching the GPS device.

"The use of longer-term GPS monitoring in investigations of most offenses impinges on expectations of privacy," Alito wrote.

The Supreme Court could "have to grapple" with the issue of duration in the future, but did not need to rush to make that decision, Scalia wrote.

Holford said it would have a bigger effect on investigations in Janesville if the Supreme Court ruled about how long a device could be used or for what types of crime.

Because the ruling on GPS tracking had been pending, Walworth County investigators already had been getting search warrants before installing GPS devices, Grube said.

"We've been going the warrant route," Grube said. "We just go the safe route."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Last updated: 7:15 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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