SOUTH BEND – A U.S. Supreme Court decision restricting the use of GPS devices by police should not affect local criminal investigations, a spokesman for one local law enforcement agency said Monday.
In a 9-0 decision Monday, the court, citing the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure, ruled police must obtain a search warrant before using such devices to track criminal suspects.
The decision related to a case in which police in Washington, D.C., in conjunction with the FBI, attached a GPS device to a suspect's vehicle as part of a drug investigation.
A judge sentenced the suspect to life in prison, but an appeals court overturned the conviction, ruling that the use of the device by police represented a search and therefore required a warrant.
"Search warrants don’t scare law enforcement," South Bend Police spokesman Capt. Phil Trent said Monday. "It’s not like if the Supreme Court says we need a search warrant, that’s gonna shut us down."
South Bend Police have used GPS devices without a warrant to track suspects in the past, Trent said, but it is expensive and time consuming, and therefore not common.
"It's not something we do constantly," he said. "The case would have to dictate it."
The devices are most commonly used in drug cases, he said, "because it involves tracking the movement of commodities like guns or drugs, as opposed to watching some guy drive around town."
The court's decision might slow an investigation, Trent said, but it is unlikely to stop it.
"If the Supreme Court says we need a warrant from now on, I don't think we would ever have a case where a judge wouldn't OK that," he said.
It is unclear whether Monday's decision will affect past cases involving GPS tracking.
"If it does," Trent said, "that would be unfortunate."
That said, an ongoing case in St. Joseph Superior Court could be affected by the decision.
"There is one case we are aware of where a GPS system was put on the vehicle of an individual … without a warrant," county Prosecutor Michael Dvorak said Monday.
Dating to 2010, the case involves four self-described "gypsies" accused of burglarizing the home of an 85-year-old South Bend woman.
According to court records, as part of a larger investigation into the group, an outside agency placed a GPS device on one of the suspect's vehicles prior to the burglary, without a warrant.
The defense, maintaining the use of the device by police represented an illegal search, has filed a motion to suppress in the case, but no ruling has been made.
A trial date has been set for April 30.
Monday’s decision left unanswered the question of whether police need a warrant to track mobile devices, such as cell phones.
South Bend Police also track cell phones, Trent said, however, cell phone companies "demand a warrant" in such cases.
County and Mishawaka police did not return phone calls Monday seeking comment on the court’s decision.
Staff writer Erin Blasko: