Criminal Justice on the Docket

State v. Johnson (GPS tracking)

This case falls into the legal category of:

Case Dates:
Monday, 6 June, 2011 - ongoing

A Butler County Sheriff’s Deputy secretly attached a GPS tracking device to Mr. Johnson’s vehicle when it was parked on the street across from Johnson’s home. The officer did not have a warrant or contact a judge for authorization. The sheriff’s department suspected Johnson of drug trafficking and decided to use the GPS tracking device after concluding that round-the-clock visual surveillance was impractical. The deputies tracked Johnson’s van for six days as it traveled through at least three states. Their tracking came to an end at a “traffic stop” conducted at gunpoint by over a dozen sheriff deputies and state police officers. No contraband was found in Johnson’s vehicle, but contraband was found in his associate’s vehicle which had also been stopped.

Legal Theory:

It violates an individual’s Fourth Amendment rights for law enforcement to secretly attach a GPS tracking device without a warrant. Courts across the country are divided on this issue, and this is a case of first impression in the Ohio Supreme Court.


Johnson was arrested and charged. Prior to trial, Johnson filed a motion to suppress all evidence obtained or resulting from the warrantless GPS tracking. The trial court overruled the motion. Johnson entered a no contest plea and appealed. The 12th District Court of Appealed affirmed Johnson’s conviction. Johnson asked the Ohio Supreme Court to hear his appeal, and the Court accepted the case.

Johnson’s appeal brief was filed June 3, 2011. We signed onto an amicus brief in support of Johnson’s Fourth Amendment claim that was filed on June 6, 2011. The amicus brief was prepared by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and joined by the Ohio Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Electronic Frontier Foundation, First Amendment Lawyers Association, Center for Democracy and Technology, ACLU of Ohio, Ohio Public
Defender, and seven law professors. The state’s appeal brief was filed July 1, 2011. On September 8, 2011, counsel for Johnson filed a notice that the U.S. Supreme Court had accepted U.S. v. Jones, a case raising the same question about the legality of warrantless GPS tracking by law enforcement. The Ohio Supreme Court held oral argument for the case on October 19, 2011. On January 23, 2012 the U.S. Supreme Court decided United States v. Jones, holding that attaching a tracking device to an automobile does constitute a Fourth Amendment search. The Ohio Supreme Court has since vacated and remanded the case to the Twelfth District Appellate Court, Butler County, for application of the Jones decision. On July 11, 2012, the Twelfth District Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the case back to the trial court. On October 19, 2012, the trial court issued a decision denying Johnson’s motion to suppress. On November 20, 2012 counsel for Johnson filed its notice of appeal to the Twelfth District Court of Appeals. On March 21, 2013 Johnson filed his appellate brief addressing the assignments of error. The following day, Johnson requested an oral argument. On April 19, 2013 the State filed its motion for an extension of time to file its brief. On April 25, 2013 the motion for extension of time was granted. On May 13, 2013 the State filed a motion requesting a continuance of the oral argument. On September 4, 2013, counsel for Johnson submitted a notice waiving oral argument. The Twelfth District Court of Appeals, on November 4, 2013, filed its decision affirming the lower court’s denial of Johnson’s motion to suppress. The Court found that suppressing the evidence against Johnson would have little deterrent effect and that law enforcement acted with an objectively reasonable good faith belief that their conduct was lawful. On December 16, 2013, Johnson filed a Notice of Appeal and Memorandum in Support of Jurisdiction with the Supreme Court of Ohio. The State of Ohio filed a Memorandum in Opposition of Jurisdiction on January 3, 2014. On March 12, 2014 the Supreme Court granted an appeal.