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Media > Newsletters > Law Enforcement Bulletin > January 2014 > Electronic Surveillance (GPS and the Exclusionary Rule): State of Ohio v. Sullivan

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Electronic Surveillance (GPS and the Exclusionary Rule): State of Ohio v. Sullivan

Question: If you have obtained the location of a suspect through GPS and a cell phone, does the cell phone evidence get suppressed if it is determined the GPS evidence was improperly obtained?
Quick Answer: No. If the cell phone data was properly obtained under a warrant and supported by independent evidence, it will not be suppressed.

State of Ohio v. Sullivan, Fifth Appellate District, Fairfield County, Nov. 22, 2013
Facts: Following a series of home invasions, the Franklin County Sheriff's Office connected a white Honda Civic belonging to Montie Sullivan to the robberies. Over a three-day period, surveillance was conducted at the address where the car was registered and the parking lot of the apartment complex. However, because of resource shortages, constant surveillance remained difficult. As a result, Corp. Minerd and an undercover officer installed a small GPS unit under the vehicle’s bumper. Minerd monitored the GPS data showing the movements of the white Honda Civic approximately three to four times a day for approximately 10 minutes at a time. On one occasion, Minerd noticed the car moving suspiciously. Two hours later, the vehicle again drove slowly through neighborhoods and circled an area in Fairfield County. Minerd contacted the Fairfield County dispatcher, identified himself, and explained the situation. He learned a home invasion had occurred in the area. A search warrant was issued for Sullivan’s residence and the vehicle. Upon execution of the warrant, officers found property from a recent robbery as well as previous robberies.
During the investigation, Minerd also obtained a search warrant for Sullivan’s cell phone. Minerd located Sullivan at Motel 6 through cell phone tracking. After checking the hotel registry, law enforcement confirmed Sullivan was registered at the hotel. Sullivan was found at the hotel and taken into custody. Sullivan filed a motion to suppress the GPS device data and all evidence collected as a result, including the cell phone records.
Importance: The U.S. Supreme Court has held that installation of a GPS on a vehicle requires a warrant. When a warrant is not obtained, evidence will be suppressed. However, not all evidence may be excluded in situations where a GPS was improperly used, only evidence that is directly related to the GPS. For example, the cell phone location obtained from cell phone towers through a warrant would not be excluded even though the GPS supplied the same location, because it was based on independent information.
Keep in Mind:  In this case, the bad guy was captured and held accountable only because the officers used a variety of methods to investigate and track him. Many GPS cases, at or about the time the law changed, are facing exclusion of evidence because law enforcement did not know warrants were necessary. Many courts, however, are combatting this by using good-faith exceptions to the exclusionary rule. Staying up to date on legal trends and changes in law may help you to anticipate protocol changes for your police work.