The technological advances over the years, particularly with the emergence of smart phones, have made Global Positioning Systems (GPS) software commonplace and ubiquitous. “The Global Positioning System (GPS) is a U.S.-owned utility that provides users with positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) services.”[i] Most smartphones have GPS technology as a built-in feature.
The information obtained from GPS can be a critical role in law enforcement, and late last week, the Court of Appeals ruled on the admissibility of GPS evidence. In United States v. Espinal-Almeida, et al[ii], the court held that GPS evidence could be admitted against a defendant without expert testimony.
United States v. Espinal-Almeida, et al,
The facts of the case were pretty straightforward. The Defendant Carlos Espinal-Almeida and three others were convicted of conspiracy and attempt to distribute a controlled substances and conspiracy to import controlled substances. The defendants were arrested on sea. The defendants allege that they were on an innocent fishing trip and not executing a drug trade. The GPS technology was used by Government officials to capture the defendants’ movements.
The defendants argued that due to the specialized and technical nature of GPS evidence, an expert witness was required, which the Government did not present. The court disagreed, stating: A court may “take judicial notice of the foundational facts if the evidence resulted from ‘a process or system that is generally known or accepted.’”[iii] They went on to state: The issues surrounding the processes employed by the GPS and software, and their accuracy, were not so scientifically or technologically grounded that expert testimony was requirement to authenticate the evidence of Durand [a Customs forensic scientist dealing with portable media], someone knowledgeable, trained, and experienced in analyzing GPS devices, was sufficient to authenticate the GPS date and software generated evidence.”
Evidence obtained from GPS technology is bound to appear in more criminal trials moving forward. Defense counsel will still challenge the evidence’s authenticity and the chain of custody. But as far as data analysis of the GPS evidence is concerned, it appears that an expert witness will not be required.