Search and Seizure in the Eleventh Circuit: Police Cannot Enter Apartment Without a Warrant But It’s OK to Install GPS Monitor on Automobile if Cops Do So In “Good Faith”

Casual readers know that we try to keep abreast of federal criminal cases, including appeals of criminal convictions involving decisions where the issue revolves around whether a particular search or seizure of evidence falls within the Fourth Amendment. As many of us know, if evidence is seized in violation of the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, such evidence generally is inadmissible and cannot be used against the accused person (assuming that the Defendant in question has “standing” to contest the search). A pair of recent cases from the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit reached opposite conclusions on this issue. In one case, the appellate court ruled that the police violated the Constitution when they entered an apartment without a warrant. In the second case, the police installed GPS monitors on the Defendant’s vehicle without getting a warrant. In that case, the Eleventh Circuit ruled that earlier decisions from decades ago made it reasonable for the police to think they would be acting in “good faith” by installing the monitors, even if later Supreme Court rulings reached a different conclusion.

In the first case, one of Ronald Timmann’s neighbors noticed a bullet hole in her apartment wall, and the hole indicated that it was caused by a weapon that likely was discharged from inside Timman’s adjacent apartment. After the police were unsuccessful in trying to locate and talk with Timman, they decided about 39 hours later to enter his apartment. Inside they found weapons that were used to prosecute him for criminal violations. His attorneys argued that the warrantless entry into the apartment was illegal. Prosecutors pointed to the “emergency aid” exception, by which in certain situations the police are allowed to enter locations without a warrant in order to assist a person who might be in danger. Here, the appellate court decided that the situation the officers confronted wasn’t an urgent emergency. “The officers here did not receive an emergency report regarding an ongoing disturbance, but rather a service call regarding what appeared to be a bullet hole, which circumstances known to the officers indicated had been made at least 39 hours prior to when the officers made entry.” The first office on the scene “…did not encounter a tumultuous scene, nor were the officers met with chaos when they returned to the building the next day. The officers observed no violent behavior, nor did they see or hear evidence that a fight had taken place or that anyone had been hurt…” As a result, the Court held that the entry and discovery of the guns and certain statements made by Timman could not be used against him.

The second case involved a drug investigation in which law enforcement secretly installed GPS monitors on Erick Smith’s vehicles. The officers did so without a search warrant. The GPS devices led to additional information, and ultimately a “stash house”. After the police found drugs in the house they arrested Smith. Later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that such warrantless GPS monitoring is illegal, as I discussed in an earlier post. In other words, the GPS monitoring devices were installed on Smith’s vehicles BEFORE the Supreme Court ruled that this practice was unconstitutional. In Smith’s case, the Eleventh Circuit noted some 30-year old cases holding that installing earlier versions of monitoring devices made it reasonable for the police in good faith to think they were acting appropriately in not getting a warrant before putting the GPS monitors on the suspect’s vehicle.

Again, we try to keep up with these rulings, mostly to see if they can help present or future clients. I predict we have not heard the last of these GPS cases.