A federal appeals court, while noting its concern about prolonged electronic surveillance, dismissed a Fourth Amendment challenge over law enforcement’s secret monitoring of a suspect’s vehicle.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit on Feb. 28 said federal authorities acted in good-faith in their warrantless use of a Global Positioning System tracker to follow the movement of an arson suspect’s vehicle duirng a 347-day period.
Lawyers for the defendant, Jose Baez, had urged the appeals court to suppress the evidence the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives derived from the GPS device. The presiding trial judge declined to suppress the evidence. Baez, who pleaded guilty to four counts of arson, was sentenced in 2012 to a 15-year prison term.
The First Circuit in United States v. Sparks concluded last year that the authorities did not violate Fourth Amendment protections in tracking a person secretly with a GPS device for 11 days. The Sparks ruling, the appeals court said in the Baez prosecution, “did not say that the duration of the GPS surveillance could never be relevant for Fourth Amendment purposes.”
The appellate panel—Chief Judge Sandra Lynch heard the case in December with judges Norman Stahl and Kermit Lipez—said the investigation of Baez did not feature “wholesale” or “mass” surveillance.
A lead ATF agent, the court said, “was not taking a shot in the dark when he installed the GPS device on Baez’s Chevrolet Caprice.” The court said federal agents had reason to suspect Baez had earlier set two fires.
“This was relatively targeted (if lengthy) surveillance of a person suspected, with good reason, of being a serial arsonist,” Stahl wrote for the panel.
Federal agents involved in the investigation of Baez installed the device more than years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in 2012, in United States v. Jones. The justices suggested, the First Circuit panel said, that 28-day warrantless GPS monitoring in Jones constituted “dragnet” surveillance.
“Our conclusion today certainly should not be read as an endorsement of prolonged warrantless electronic surveillance,” Stahl wrote in upholding the evidence against Baez. “Moving forward, new rules will apply, and perhaps congressional action will follow.”