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GPS warrants have lower requirements

  • Birdsall Obear

Global position system technology provides directions to motorists but can also impact the rights of crime suspects and raise constitutional issues. The Wisconsin State Supreme Court recently issued a decision that can impact the rights of suspects charged with drug charges and other offenses by ruling that warrants for GPS tracking do not have to meet the legal requirements for timely execution that govern other warrants.

Police, acting on tips on burglarized businesses in Mequon, applied for a search warrant for placement of a hidden GPS tracking device in the vehicle of a suspect in 2015. An Ozaukee County judge granted the warrant for no more than 60 days.

Wisconsin law requires that a search warrant must be executed and returned within five days after it is issued. This warrant, however, did not require that the execution of the GPS device within a certain time. Police installed the device within 10 days from its issuance.

Five days later, the GPS device located the suspect's vehicle in a Mequon business park. Police arrested him for the burglaries that took place there and charged him with burglary and possession of burglary tools. His motion to suppress evidence associated with the warrant was denied and he was convicted and sentenced to six years imprisonment and two years of extended supervision.

The state Supreme Court heard a certified appeal. It upheld the warrant and ruled that a search warrant for a GPS device is valid if the search was conducted reasonably even if it was not executed within five days.

The Court concluded that the five-day rule governs warrants for the seizure of property like documents or electronic data. A GPS device is different because it creates data and does not seize property. The data in this case was not even in existence or under the suspect's control when police applied for the warrant.

The Court ruled that warrants for GPS devices must nonetheless comply with constitutional rights. This warrant was valid because it was issued by a neutral magistrate, based on probable cause, and described specifics such as the car being tracked and the surveillance's duration.

Regardless, GPS and other warrants must comply with legal and constitutional requirements. A person suspected of drug offense and other crimes should seek immediate legal assistance to contest any evidence that may have been sized under an unlawful warrant.

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