Warrant Required for GPS Tracking of Automobile

Posted on by Townsend Myers
© Nmedia | <a © Nmedia | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images

© Nmedia | Dreamstime Stock Photos &Stock Free Images

In late October, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled in the case of U.S. v. Katzin that law enforcement officers must have a valid warrant before installing a GPS device on the vehicle of a criminal suspect. In a 2-1 panel opinion, the Court relied heavily on the precedent in the United States Supreme Court’s recent decision in U.S. v. Jones, where the Court held that the installation of a GPS tracking device constitutes a search triggering Fourth Amendment protections.

The case involved the 2010 arrest of three brothers who were charged with burglarizing a string of pharmacies in the Delaware, Maryland and New Jersey areas in 2009 and 2010. During the investigation, police placed a GPS tracking device under the bumper of a vehicle they believed was being used in the burglaries. They used it to track the vehicle and the suspects to the scene of a burglary where, after a stop of the vehicle, police found pills, cash and other items believed to have been taken in the burglary.

A federal district judge threw out the evidence, claiming it to be the fruits of an illegal search, and the Court of Appeals agreed with a judge’s earlier decision, saying police first needed to get a warrant before using the tracking device. The government argued that under the “automobile exception” a warrant was not needed to conduct a search of an automobile, and that the exception should apply to GPS searches as well. The court rejected this argument, finding that the automobile exception allows only searches of any part of a vehicle that may conceal evidence. The court said:

Attaching and monitoring a GPS tracker is different [than searching a car for evidence]: It creates a continuous police presence for the purpose of discovering evidence that may come into existence and/or be placed within the vehicle at some point in the future.

The government alternately argued that even if a warrant should have been sought, the evidence should nevertheless be admissible under the “good faith exception” to the warrant requirement because the officers reasonably believed that they did not need a warrant, based on existing federal case law. But the court rejected this argument as well, noting that there was no binding precedent for the police to rely on in making this assumption, and that “constitutionally reckless action was the Government’s default choice” in the way they handled the investigation.

According to Wired Magazine, the ACLU has weighed in on the decision favorably, as you might expect. In a statement, ACLU attorney Catherine Crump said:

Today’s decision is a victory for all Americans because it ensures that the police cannot use powerful tracking technology without court supervision and a good reason to believe it will turn up evidence of wrongdoing.

And writing for Justia.com, David Kemp, also argues in favor of the decision:

The Third Circuit got it right. The Fourth Amendment cannot reasonably be understood to permit law enforcement officers to install GPS tracking devices without a warrant on vehicles of anyone merely suspected of a crime. The warrant requirement serves an invaluable purpose in safeguarding the American people from police overreach and tyranny. It requires a neutral magistrate to adjudicate whether there is probable cause for a search, rather than leaving that discretion in the hands of the government.

According to the Huffington Post, the government is considering appealing the court to the Supreme Court. Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Zauzmer, argued that police acted in good faith before the ruling from the Supreme Court. And one of the three judges on the Third Circuit panel agreed the evidence should not be suppressed for that reason.

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