GPS Records as Hearsay

Commonwealth v. Wallace, 244 A.3d 1261 (Pa. Super. 2021), allocatur granted Dec. 29, 2021, appeal docket 93 MAP 2021

Jamal Wallace was convicted of aggravated assault—serious bodily injury, criminal conspiracy, persons not to possess a firearm, and carrying a firearm without a license in connection with a shooting resulting from an attack by Wallace, Mason Clary, and a juvenile, C.S. At the time of the shooting, Clary wore a Global Positioning System (GPS) monitoring device on his ankle. As Superior Court summarized:

Based upon data recovered from the GPS device, [ ] Clary was identified as being present at [ ] Pub Deli with [Wallace] before the assault and leaving [ ] Pub Deli approximately twenty minutes before the attack. The GPS data also identified [ ] Clary near the home of C.S. immediately before the crime, at the location of the crime, and then tracked back to the area near his and C.S.’s homes after the crime. On April 7, 2019, approximately twenty-four (24) hours after the shooting, Clary cut off his GPS monitoring device. The GPS data was corroborated by video surveillance.

Slip op. at 3.

Wallace appealed his sentence to Superior Court, arguing that the trial court erred by admitting Clary’s GPS records into evidence, claiming that they constitute inadmissible hearsay. In support Wallace relied on a decision by the Florida district court that found that the data recorded from a defendant’s GPS monitoring device was “‘clearly hearsay’ because it purported … to prove that [the defendant] was in the location … as reflected in the GPS data.” Slip op. at 10, quoting Channell v. State, 200 So.3d 247, 248-49 (Fla. Dist. Ct. App. 2016).

While Superior Court acknowledged that whether GPS records are hearsay was a matter of first impression in Pennsylvania, it noted that “some state and federal courts have ruled that computer-generated GPS data cannot be deemed hearsay because it is an assertion made by a machine, not an assertion made by a person.” Slip op. at 9 (emphasis in original). Superior Court rejected Wallace’s reliance on Florida law, explaining that “the relevant definitions framing the hearsay analysis are materially different under the Florida Evidence Code and the Pennsylvania Rules of Evidence” in that:

Under section 801(a)(1) of Florida’s Evidence Code, a “statement” is defined, for hearsay purposes, simply as “[a]n oral or written assertion.” 801 Fla. Stat. Ann. § 90.801. Thus, under Florida’s definition, any written assertion would qualify as a “statement,” regardless of who (or what) is making the assertion.

In contrast, as explained above, the Pennsylvania Rules of Evidence expressly define a “statement” for purposes of hearsay as the written or oral assertion of a person. Pa.R.E. 801. For this Court to “adopt Florida’s position and hold that GPS records qualify as hearsay,” see Brief of Appellant, at 8, we would have to ignore the evidentiary definitions of Pennsylvania law, which we cannot do. See Commonwealth v. Brown, 617 Pa. 107, 52 A.3d 1139, 1176 (2017) (“[I]n interpreting the meaning of the Pennsylvania Rules of Evidence, [our Supreme Court] ascribes to the words of those rules their plain and ordinary meaning[.]”). Any change in the Rules of Evidence must be effectuated by our Supreme Court.

Slip op. at 11 (emphasis in original). Thus, Superior Court concluded that “as it stands, GPS data automatically generated by a computer, free from interference by any person, does not constitute a ‘statement,’ and therefore, cannot qualify as hearsay.” Slip op. at 11-12.

The Supreme Court granted allocatur to consider the following issue:

Whether the Superior Court erred in deciding in a matter of first impression that GPS records are not hearsay because they do not constitute statements.