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GPS search after fatal crash unconstitutional, COA holds

July 7, 2015

The warrantless search of a driver’s global positioning system after a crash in which a passenger died was unconstitutional, the Indiana Court of Appeals held Tuesday.

The court reversed denial of a motion to suppress evidence collected from the search of a Garmin GPS device in Christopher Wertz’s vehicle. Wertz lost control of his vehicle and hit a utility pole in September 2011. He was severely injured in a crash that killed passenger Megan Solinski.

Wertz was later charged with Class C felony reckless homicide. After a mistrial, he sought to suppress evidence obtained from the device in a warrantless search in which Garmin International supplied access codes to authorities. The device would have stored information such as Wertz’s route and speed at the time of the crash.

“We conclude Wertz’s GPS device is not a ‘container’ under the automobile exception and that he has a reasonable expectation of privacy in the device and its contents,” Judge Margret Robb wrote for the panel in Christopher Wertz v. State of Indiana, 48A04-1409-CR-427.

“Therefore, the warrantless search of the GPS device violated the Fourth Amendment. We reverse and remand.”

Wertz moved to suppress the evidence after an initial denial as his retrial approached last year, and shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Riley v. California that a warrant was required to search digital information on an arrestee’s cell phone. The trial court denied Wertz’s motion to suppress the GPS evidence in light of that opinion.

“We are not persuaded that a law enforcement officer could rely on binding precedent for the warrantless search of Wertz’s GPS device," Robb wrote. "... We read Riley only as clarifying that electronic storage devices are not properly treated as containers, not as a new rule of law or as overruling any binding precedent previously allowing for the warrantless search of an electronic device under the automobile exception to the warrant requirement.

“Simply put, there exists no binding precedent allowing for a warrantless search of an electronic device storing historical location data. In the absence of such authority, the general rule is that a warrant is required.”

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