Court Shuts Down Government's Attempt To Claim An In-Car GPS System Is A 'Container'

from the just-a-cardboard-box-full-of-detailed-traffic-records dept

Almost everyone gets from Point A to Point B in a vehicle. This works out well for police officers looking to perform Fourth Amendment-skirting searches. The “motor vehicle exception” allows law enforcement to search the interior of vehicles without a warrant as long as probable cause exists that contraband or evidence may be hidden inside it. This exception can be extended to cover the contents of locked trunks, as well as any “containers” located inside the vehicle.

This no-warrant loophole has been exploited thoroughly by law enforcement and granted credence by deferential courts. It nows extends to houseboats, airplanes and motor homes and can be used even if in the absence of exigent circumstances (i.e., enough time to obtain a warrant) or even if the vehicle itself is in no danger of going anywhere (i.e., locked in an impound lot).

In this particular case, the government not only deployed the “motor vehicle” exception, but also maintained that an in-vehicle GPS system was basically just a cardboard box full of detailed info about that vehicle’s travel history. To a government that has previously asserted a cell phone full of personal information is pretty much the same thing as a pair of pants and the contents of its pockets, this sort of misrepresentation is nothing new. Unfortunately for it, this court was similarly unimpressed by the government’s terrible, self-serving metaphors.

The State likens the GPS device in this case to a locked container and directs us to lower court decisions comparing computers and cell phones to locked containers. See Brief of Appellee at 21-22. Indiana does not have a case directly on point, but lower courts in other jurisdictions are split on the issue of whether a computer or cell phone may be treated as a container and subjected to a warrantless search under the automobile exception.

So far, so good, but the lack of clear precedent doesn’t help the state’s case, not when the Riley decision is factored in.

It should be noted that the State’s persuasive authority comparing computers and cellphones to containers were all decided before the Supreme Court’s decision in Riley v. California, infra, which we believe is instructive.


In our view, the GPS unit in this case is akin to a computer or cell phone. The device stores large amounts of information that could not possibly be stored in an ordinary physical container. For that reason, an electronic storage device cannot be treated as a container. Moreover, the location data it does store has been identified by the Supreme Court as private information. Just as the Supreme Court believed that treating a cell phone as a container was “a bit strained,” id. at 2491, we believe that treating the GPS device as a container under the automobile exception is inappropriate.

The state also argued that even if the warrantless search of the GPS system was a violation of privacy, it didn’t violate that much privacy and the evidence gleaned from it is still admissible in court.

The State maintains that Wertz’s GPS device is not deserving of the same level of protection as a cell phone, because a GPS device does not contain the same amount of personal information. The GPS unit does not hold pictures, Internet history, text messages, a calendar, or several of the other features that a smart phone does.

The court agrees that GPS devices contain less personal information than the cell phones of the Riley decision, but that doesn’t mean there’s no expectation of privacy in other devices.

No one will dispute that society considers a cell phone to be more private than the GPS device in this case. But that does not mean that electronic devices other than cell phones are not entitled to Fourth Amendment protections. It remains true that devices like Wertz’s GPS have an enormous storage capacity, and they store information that most people consider to be private. Any differences between the contents of a cell phone and a GPS device do not support treating the GPS device as a container.

The state also pointed to the motor vehicle exception as allowing for the search of the GPS device. The court points out the logical error in this assertion:

The State’s proposed distinction would require us to conclude that a cell phone found next to a driver in the passenger seat of his vehicle could be searched without a warrant, regardless of the Supreme Court’s decision in Riley. But such an outcome is unthinkable if the Court meant what it said in Riley. Although the State is correct that Riley dealt only with the search-incident-to-arrest exception, Riley’s discussion of Fourth Amendment protections afforded to electronic devices that store private information transcends the search-incident-to-arrest exception. The analysis in Riley easily transfers to other circumstances where an exception to the warrant requirement would otherwise exist, including the automobile context.

The state also attempted to use the Supreme Court’s Jones decision to defend its actions, claiming this decision only found “long-term” monitoring of movements to be a violation of the Constitution. But the court points out that a search of a personal GPS device — much like a search of location data stored on smartphones — is still the same privacy violation, even if it doesn’t include “real-time” monitoring.

The Fourth Amendment forbids real-time, long-term monitoring of a citizen’s location. See supra, ¶¶ 26-31 (discussing Jones concurrences). There is no logical basis for allowing the government to obtain the same information without a warrant by inspecting a citizen’s location information after-the-fact.

The government has many ways to work around the supposed limitations of the Fourth Amendment, which it seems to prefer to use even when obtaining a warrant seldom requires any significant amount of effort. It’s not as though the police involved here couldn’t have obtained a warrant. The suspect was in the hospital, recovering from the traffic accident central to the vehicular homicide case. It just chose to use the exception, rather than the rule, and in doing so, lost the ability to use the evidence it obtained.

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Comments on “Court Shuts Down Government's Attempt To Claim An In-Car GPS System Is A 'Container'”

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That One Guy (profile) says:

Retroactive, no warrant needed long-term tracking

The state also attempted to use the Supreme Court’s Jones decision to defend its actions, claiming this decision only found “long-term” monitoring of movements to be a violation of the Constitution.

Why did they want the data on the GPS device? Because it was location data. Why was that useful? Because it would allow them to construct a timeline of where the car was, and when, the exact same data that real-time tracking would give when looked at later.

Just because it’s ‘old’ does not change the fact that GPS data, and real-time tracking via some other means, both allow one to accurately map out where a person has been or currently is, and I’m glad the court shot down their argument as a result. Both give the same data, and both should be protected.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

First up, Laura Poitras has been getting searched at the border – no warrant – for unspecified reasons. She hasn’t been charged with anything. … yet.

We can point to the intelligence agencies and shake our privacy finger. If you leave out the “stop” part, it’s still a “stop, arrest, THEN accuse” scenario. Find someone you don’t like, then Richelieu them. If you can’t trust the director of the FBI to declare that organization’s intent, who can you trust?

Advance to Ferguson where we have journalists being arrested for moving too slow, then the law enforcement office fishing for charges to punish them. They might or might not have had their personal effects riffled through.

Continue with Gardena where they engaged in a rigorous bout of “blame the victim”. Posthumously in this case. I admit this was a case of having a crime and looking for someone to pin it on, but it’s pretty danged close.

Finally, we even have a judge declaiming google searches found, declaring them inculpatory evidence for a crime that had not been committed.

And that was this week. Granted, many of these are examples of actions rather than “law enforcement person said“, but actions speak louder than words.

Sufficient citations for you?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

The police object to warrants because if they get a warrant once, they’ll be expected to continue to get warrants, greatly cutting down on their ability to do whatever the #$%@ they want and beat up anyone who objects. It is, after all, much harder to claim “in good faith” that the law I just made up exists if I consulted a court first.

And also, because that undermines the governments claim that without instant warrantless access to every computer everywhere, the terrorists/child molesters will win.

Wendy Cockcroft says:

Re: Re: Re: Not warriors of the pen

Have you noticed that every film about the police features the trope about due process as an impediment to justice? I have yet to see one in which carefully sticking to procedure gets the bad guy sent to prison. I can’t help wondering if that has anything to do with these cases; surely law enforcement officials are as influenced by the media as the rest of us.

Anon says:

desperate prosecutor?

Why not include in the story some background? Car hits utility pole, driver injured, passenger died at scene. No mention of DUI. Charge: reckless homicide. Cops got permission from defendant to search GPS while he was in hospital under pain medication. Mistrial, now in retrial, search is challenged by defendant in light of Riley decision. Looks like the ONLY evidence against defendant is on GPS. Sounds like another desperate prosecutor.

Mac Hayes says:

Fourth Amendment

The definition of “effects,” as in the expression “secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects,” seems to be grossly misinterpreted by law enforcement officers as well as court officers. Any electronic device such as a cell phone, computer or GPS seems to be logically defined as a person’s “effects.”

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