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Appeals court OKs warrantless phone GPS tracking

If a device emits a trackable signal, police can use that signal

By PoliceOne Staff

Investigators did not need a warrant when they used GPS tracking to find a suspect in a drug smuggling operation, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday.

At the center of United States v. Skinner is the question of whether investigators illegally tracked suspected drug trafficker Melvin Skinner, who was arrested in 2006 near Abilene, Texas. According to The Tennessean, officials used the GPS locations logged by his pay-as-you-go cell phone and found him at a rest stop with a motorhome containing 1,100 pounds of marijuana.

Skinner claimed the Fourth Amendment was violated in the case because investigators did not obtain a warrant. However, the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals said if a device emits a trackable signal, following their location is similar to watching someone move about in a public space.

Judge John M. Rogers compared the logic to a suspect fleeing in a vehicle.

"A getaway car could not be identified and followed based on the license plate number if the driver reasonably thought he had gotten away unseen. The recent nature of cell phone location technology does not change this. If it did, then technology would help criminals but not the police," Rogers wrote.

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