Warrantless GPS tracking before court decision OK

Gavel
File photo (WLUK)

MADISON (AP) – Evidence gathered from GPS trackers that police placed on cars before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled they needed warrants is admissible in court, a Wisconsin appeals court ruled Wednesday.

The 2nd District Court of Appeals said officers who placed the devices on vehicles without warrants could reasonably rely on a state appellate ruling that found the practice was constitutional three years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it wasn’t in 2012.

Police in Kenosha attached a tracker to Scott Oberst’s car while it was parked at an athletic club twice in 2011, according to court documents. They didn’t have a warrant in either instance.

They used the tracker to gather evidence to help them build a drug case against Oberst. Prosecutors ended up charging him with three felony counts of delivering marijuana and one misdemeanor count of marijuana possession in August 2011.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in January 2012 that installing a GPS device on a person’s car to track their movements amounts to a search under the U.S. Constitution and requires a warrant.

Oberst asked Kenosha County Circuit Judge Anthony Milisauskas to suppress the evidence against him in light of the ruling. Milisauskas agreed that per the Supreme Court decision the warrantless installation was unconstitutional, but he refused to suppress the evidence.

The judge said that when police placed the trackers on Oberst’s car, they reasonably believed they were within their rights because a Wisconsin appeals court had issued a binding ruling in 2009 that found placing the trackers on vehicles without warrants wasn’t a search under the U.S. Constitution. Oberst ultimately pleaded guilty to two of the felony charges in May 2013 and was sentenced to four years in prison.

He asked the 2nd District Court of Appeals to find that the evidence was inadmissible. The court upheld Milisauskas on Wednesday, concluding that officers who placed the tracker on Oberst’s car were relying on the 2009 state appellate ruling.

“Law enforcement officers could reasonably rely on (the 2009 ruling) to install and track GPS devices on vehicles without warrants prior to the (2012 Supreme Court ruling),” the court said.

Oberst’s attorney, Terry Rose, said he hadn’t reviewed the decision yet but planned to speak to Oberst about petitioning the Wisconsin Supreme Court to take the case.

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