Smith's Criminal Case Compendium

Smith's Criminal Case Compendium

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This compendium includes significant criminal cases by the U.S. Supreme Court & N.C. appellate courts, Nov. 2008 – Present. Selected 4th Circuit cases also are included.

Jessica Smith prepared case summaries Nov. 2008-June 4, 2019; later summaries are prepared by other School staff.

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E.g., 01/17/2022
E.g., 01/17/2022

The government’s installation of a GPS tracking device on a vehicle and its use of that device to monitor the vehicle’s movements on public streets constitutes a “search” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. Suspecting that the defendant was involved in drug trafficking, the government obtained a search warrant for use of a GPS device on the defendant’s vehicle; the warrant authorized officers to install the device in the District of Columbia within 10 days. Officers ended up installing the device on the undercarriage of the vehicle while it was parked in a public parking lot in Maryland, 11 days after the warrant was signed. Over the next 28 days, the government used the device to track the vehicle’s movements, and once had to replace the device’s battery when the vehicle was parked in a different public lot in Maryland. By means of signals from multiple satellites, the device established the vehicle’s location within 50 to 100 feet, and communicated that location by cellular phone to a government computer. It relayed more than 2,000 pages of data over the 4-week period. The defendant was charged with several drug offenses. He unsuccessfully sought to suppress the evidence obtained through the GPS device. Before the U.S. Supreme Court the government conceded noncompliance with the warrant and argued only that a warrant was not required for the GPS device. Concluding that the evidence should have been suppressed, the Court characterized the government’s conduct as having “physically occupied private property for the purpose of obtaining information.” So characterized, the Court had “no doubt that such a physical intrusion would have been considered a ‘search’ within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment when it was adopted.” The Court declined to address whether the defendant had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the undercarriage of his car and in the car’s locations on the public roads, concluding that such an analysis was not required when the intrusion—as here—“encroached on a protected area.”

In this Wake County case, evidence of the defendant’s crimes was obtained using a GPS tracking device installed, pursuant to a court order, on a car owned by Sherry Harris and driven by Ronald Lee Evans. Evans was the target of the investigation. When officers intercepted the vehicle as it returned from a trip to New York, the defendant was driving and Evans was a passenger. After an initial mistrial, the defendant ultimately pled guilty to attempted trafficking heroin by possession and trafficking heroin by transportation, but preserved his right to appeal the trial court’s denial of his motion to suppress evidence obtained as a result of the GPS device.

The Court of Appeals concluded that the defendant did not have standing to challenge use of the GPS device. Under the common law trespass theory of a search, a search happens when government agents intrude into a constitutionally protected area to obtain information. Here, the defendant offered no evidence that he possessed the car to which the GPS device was attached such that any trespass by the government violated his rights as opposed to the rights of the owner (Harris) or usual driver (Evans). Likewise under a reasonable expectation of privacy theory, the defendant could not show that he had a reasonable expectation of privacy in his movements in someone else’s car on a public thoroughfare. To the contrary, the Court said, “[f]or the Defendant, the [car] was a vehicle for a trip to conduct a heroin transaction. Defendant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy to confer standing to challenge the court order issue on probable cause.” Slip op. ¶ 30.

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