The Massachusetts Appeals Court today ruled a defendant who was linked to a crime by data compiled by the GPS bracelet he was wearing had no expectation of privacy in his location because he voluntarily wore the bracelet as a condition of his release in an earlier criminal case. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Johnson.
In July of 2013, the defendant was charged with domestic violence offenses. As a condition of his release, the judge ordered him to stay away from the alleged victim and her home, and to be monitored by a GPS bracelet, which would track his movements. The following month, a West Roxbury home was broken into while the owner was on vacation. The thief forced open a kitchen window to gain access and stole jewelry from the owner’s bedroom. The police initially had no leads into the West Roxbury crime. However, a few months later, a probation officer called the Boston Police to report she had reviewed the defendant’s movements as they were recorded by his GPS bracelet. The defendant had been “mapped” to the West Roxbury home during the time its owner was on vacation, and the defendant was inside the home for 15-30 minutes at just past 4:00 a.m. The homeowner had never met the defendant and said there was no reason for him to have been inside her house. Accordingly, the defendant was charged with breaking and entering into a building and larceny over $250.
The defendant filed a motion to suppress the evidence gleaned from the GPS monitor, arguing he had not agreed to be tracked everywhere he went. Instead, argued the defendant, the only purpose of wearing the bracelet had been to ensure he stayed away from the alleged victim’s house in the domestic case. A majority of the Appeals Court panel hearing the case concluded a search had not occurred in the constitutional sense. To satisfy the elements of a constitutional search, the defendant needed to have proven he had a subjective expectation of privacy in the data compiled by his GPS bracelet, and that his expectation of privacy was objectively reasonable. In this case, the defendant was voluntarily wearing the bracelet and knew it would track his movements. He did not own the monitoring equipment (unlike, for example, a personal cell phone), and the government made it clear the defendant’s movements would be monitored (unlike cases where the police have secretly attached GPS monitors to defendants’ cars). Because one of his conditions of release obligated the defendant to stay away from the alleged victim in the Dorchester case, the government was permitted to track him wherever he went (because the alleged victim was not a stationary object like her home). The Court concluded even if the defendant subjectively believed he had a privacy interest in the GPS data, such a belief was not objectively reasonable. The data was stored in a location the defendant did not control and could not access. Further, the defendant agreed to wear the GPS monitor, because it prevented him from potentially being held without bail in the domestic case. Therefore, the defendant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the GPS data and it was properly admitted at his trial.
One justice dissented. She argued the defendant’s consent to wear the GPS monitor did not necessarily destroy his privacy interests in his whereabouts. She would have reversed the defendant’s conviction and remanded the case to the trial court for a hearing to determine if the government had probable cause to search the data compiled by the defendant’s bracelet.