SCOW deals with GPS devices, search warrants

State v. Johnny K. Pinder: whether a warrant to attach a GPS device to a vehicle was void for failure to abide by statutory requirements

On November 16, 2018 the Supreme Court of Wisconsin issued an interesting decision regarding GPS devices.  In State v. Johnny K. Pinder, 2018 WI 106, the Court confronted the issue of whether a warrant to attach a GPS device to a vehicle was void because police failed to execute the warrant within the statutory time period.

The supreme court held this warrant was not void because it was not a “search warrant” under the statutory definition.  Thus, statutory requirements regarding the execution of a search warrant didn’t apply.

What are the facts?

Multiple burglaries occurred in February of 2015 in Mequon, WI.  Eventually police developed a suspect: Johnny K. Pinder.  Police determined that Mr. Pinder drove a 2008 Chevrolet Impala LT, silver in color with tinted windows, and determined the exact VIN of the vehicle.  Mr. Pinder was in prison for burglary until December 2014 and was the  suspect in numerous other burglaries involving the same vehicle.

Trial court action

On February 27, 2015, police applied to the Ozaukee County circuit court for an order to covertly place and monitor a GPS tracking device on Pinder’s vehicle.  They requested the GPS device remain on Pinder’s vehicle “for a period of time not to exceed 60 days from the date the order is signed.”  The court authorized the State to:

place an electronic tracking device on [Pinder’s vehicle], and … surreptitiously enter and re-enter the vehicle and any buildings and structures containing the vehicle or any premises on which the vehicle is located to install, use, maintain and conduct surveillance and monitoring of the location and movement of a mobile electronic-tracking device in the vehicle and any and all places within or outside the jurisdiction of Ozaukee County, including but not limited to private residences and other locations not open to visual surveillance;

The warrant didn’t require police to install the tracking device within a certain time period, but required that the tracking device be removed “as soon as practicable after the objectives of the surveillance are accomplished or not later than 60 days from the date the order is signed.”

Police install GPS device and track Pinder

Police installed the GPS device ten days later.  Five days later police received an alert that Pinder’s vehicle had entered Mequon.  Police tracked Pinder’s location electronically and responded to where his vehicle parked.  There they found that a burglary had occurred.  Police subsequently conducted a traffic stop on Pinder’s vehicle and located gloves, screwdrivers, a hammer-type device, metal tools, and items stolen from the burglary scene.  Later, police found lock-picking tools on Pinder’s person.

Pinder was subsequently charged with burglary and possession of burlgarious tools.

Supreme Court analysis:

The Court began its decision by interpreting Wis. Stat. 968.12 and 968.13.  Those statutes focus on the purpose of a statutory search warrant and what property is subject to seizure.

Wis. Stat. 968.12 defines a “search warrant” as “an order signed by a judge directing a law enforcement officer to conduct a search of a designated person, a designated object or a designated place for the purpose of seizing designated property or kinds of property.”

The Court focused on the fact that GPS devices do not seize property.  Instead, they create data.  The court went on and focused on the definition of property, specifically documents, and search warrants.

Wis. Stat. 968.13 provides “A search warrant may authorize the seizure of the following…(d) Documents which may constitute evidence of any crime, if probable cause is shown that the documents are under the control of a person who is reasonably suspected to be concerned in the commission of that crime…” “Documents” are further defined as including but not limited to “books, papers, records, recordings, tapes, photographs, films or computer or electronic data.”

Court holding

The court held the information generated from a GPS device is not “property” that can be “seized” at the time the warrant is issued and further is not “property” that is under the control of the defendant.

Under the court’s interpretation, a warrant for a GPS device is not a “search warrant” under the statutory definition and must then comply with the Fourth Amendment to be valid. The result here is clear: courts have inherent authority to issue warrants for GPS devices.

What does this all mean?

We live in a world with rapid technological advancement’s seemingly occurring daily.  These advancements stick courts and legislatures in a constant game of tug of war.  On one side we have the statutory language created by the legislature. On the other side courts interpret the meaning of the statutory language. GPS devices weren’t considered when Wis. Stat. 968.12 and 968.13 were created. However, as the world changes, so too does the law and our interpretations of the langue used in the law.

What does this all mean? The Supreme Court of Wisconsin held that police warrants to install GPS devices were not “search warrants” and thus governed by the Fourth Amendment. This places inherent authority on the judges to grant these warrants. Judges are the ones who get to decide whether police can place a GPS device on your car. Statutory requirements that safeguard “search warrants” do not apply to warrants for GPS devices.

Why should we care?

Why should we care? We should care because these warrants for GPS devices are “search warrants” and should be considered so by the courts. Police must follow statutory requirements for “search warrants” when obtaining a warrant for a GPS device. This is necessary to protect the privacy of each and every citizen in our community. GPS devices are capable of providing “electronic data” of each and everyone of your movements. Your current location, where you travel, and where you spend your time, are all part “electronic data.”  Electronic data is what’s made available to police. This private information needs to remain private unless absolutely necessary. Rulings like this chip away at this privacy.

Contact the criminal defense lawyers at Van Severen Law Office

The criminal defense attorneys at Van Severen Law Office have successfully handled search warrant cases throughout the State of Wisconsin. If you’ve been accused of committing a crime involving a search warrant used to search your home, car or have used a GPS device to trace your vehicle, it’s important to get someone on your side immediately. Contact Van Severen Law Office at (414) 270-0202 to speak with an attorney.

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