Attachmnent of GPS Devices to Private Vehicles Requires a Warrant

William Bradley Jackson reported his daughter Valiree missing on October 18, 1999. Police soon suspected that Jackson was involved in the disappearance and obtained a warrant to search his home and impound and search Jackson’s two vehicles. Police also obtained two 10-day warrants to attach and maintain global positioning system (GPS) devices on Jackson’s vehicles. The data from these devices eventually led police to Valiree’s body. Jackson was tried and convicted of first degree murder and was given an exceptional sentence of 672 months because of aggravating factors. On appeal, Jackson claimed that the trial court erred in refusing to suppress evidence obtained from the GPS devices because the GPS warrants had been issued without probable cause. The intermediate appellate court rejected Jackson’s claim, holding that a warrant is not required for GPS devices under Wash. Const. art. I, § 7. Jackson appealed to the Supreme Court of Washington, claiming, inter alia, that (1) under Wash. Const. art. I, § 7, a warrant is required for police to install and use a GPS device on a private vehicle and (2) the warrants issued in his case were not supported by probable cause and were, therefore, invalid.

The Supreme Court of Washington reviewed Jackson’s first claim de novo. Wash. Const. art. I, § 7 states that “[n]o person shall be disturbed in his private affairs, or his home invaded, without authority of law.” Under Washington common law, a warrant (or “authority of law”) is not required when a law enforcement officer is able to detect or observe something from a legal vantage point using his own senses. State v. Seagull, 95 Wn.2d 898, 901, 632 P.2d 44 (1981); State v. Young, 123 Wn.2d 173, 182, 867 P.2d 593 (1994). A warrant is required when there is a substantial departure from a lawful vantage point or the officer is using a “particularly intrusive method of viewing.” Young, 123 Wn.2d at 182-183. The court found that a GPS device is not a sense-enhancing instrument, like binoculars or a flashlight, but rather “provides a technological substitute for traditional visual tracking.” The device allows officers to maintain 24-hour surveillance for extended periods of time and, thus, intrudes extensively into an individual’s private affairs. Based upon this analysis, the court held that a warrant is required prior to use of a GPS device by police pursuant to Wash. Const. art. I, § 7.

In Jackson’s case, authorities obtained two warrants authorizing the use of the GPS devices on Jackson’s vehicles. Jackson claimed that the warrants were invalid because they were not based on probable cause. After reviewing the affidavits in support of the warrants, the court found that there were sufficient facts and circumstances to establish probable cause. The affidavit was based upon more than “mere suspicion or personal belief that evidence of the crime will be found at the place to be searched.” The court, therefore, held that the warrants were valid.

State v. Jackson, No. 72799-6, 2003 Wash. LEXIS 659 (Wash. Sept. 11, 2003)

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