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

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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