Third Circuit: GPS Tracker Requires Warrant

Filed under: Criminal Law by Contributor @ November 1, 2013

GPS tracker
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On October 22, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals decided United States v. Katzin, a long-awaited Fourth Amendment ruling. The court answered a major question that was left open in United States v. Jones, decided two years prior: Does an officer need a warrant before attaching a “slap-on” GPS receiver to a car in order to track where the car goes? The Supreme Court of the United States decided in Jones that attaching such a GPS device constitutes a search, but was silent on the issue of whether a warrant was required. In its ruling, the Third Circuit says that the answer to this question is ‘yes’.

In 2009 and 2010, there was a wave of pharmacy burglaries in Delaware, Maryland, and New Jersey. Eventually police and the FBI suspected that Harry Katzin was involved in the burglaries. The agencies began to look in to him and then placed a ‘slap-on’ GPS tracker on his van. After tracking the van’s activity for some time, the FBI determined that Katzin was in fact connected to the robbery of a Rite Aid store, and decided that the van should be pulled over. Police stopped the van and inside found prescription pill bottles and storage bins from the Rite Aid that had just been burglarized. Katzin and his two brothers, also in the van, were ‘caught red-handed’.

Before the District Court, the Katzins moved to suppress the evidence in the van, arguing that a warrant was required before a GPS device could be used. The government argued that a warrant was not required to use the device, and that even if a warrant was required, the evidence should still be admissible under the ‘good faith’ exception to the exclusionary rule. The District Court granted the motion to suppress and the government appealed.

The government argued several different theories as to why a warrant was not needed to use a GPS tracking device. Chief among them was the likening of a GPS tracker to a ‘stop and frisk’ (Terry stop), which only requires reasonable suspicion, and also to a warrantless vehicle search, which requires probable cause. The Third Circuit flatly rejected both of these arguments. Unlike a Terry stop, which is limited to a very brief encounter, a GPS tracker “can generate a precise, comprehensive record of a person’s public movements that reflects a wealth of detail about [his or] her familial, political, professional, religious, and sexual orientations.” And unlike a warrantless vehicle search, a search for contraband that is suspected to already be inside of a vehicle, a GPS tracker is used to gather evidence about the future movements and criminal activity relating to that vehicle. As such, the ‘automobile exception’ to the warrant requirement before a search does not apply.

The Third Circuit was also unsympathetic to the government’s argument that the evidence was admissible under the ‘good faith’ exception. Under the exception, evidence that is gathered without a warrant, but still in good faith, can still be admissible in court. However, since the law on GPS trackers on vehicles is new and very unclear (especially considering the question left open in Jones), it is hard to argue ‘good faith’ in such a constitutionally vague area. The Third Circuit issued a clear warning to officers who wish to ‘play judge’ in situations such as this: “Where an officer decides to take the Fourth Amendment inquiry into his own hands, rather than to seek a warrant from a neutral magistrate–particularly where the law is as far from settled as it was in this case–he acts in a constitutionally reckless fashion.”

The government made another argument, ostensibly appealing to the judges’ senses of patriotism, which fell on deaf ears. It argued that a warrantless search using a GPS device should fall under the ‘special needs’ doctrine, since “requiring a warrant prior to GPS searches would seriously impede the government’s ability to investigate drug trafficking, terrorism, and other crimes.” The Third Circuit rejected this, saying that it “would work a great disservice by permitting the word “terrorism”…to act as a skeleton key to the liberties guaranteed under the Constitution.”

The Third Circuit’s decision represents a major victory for Fourth Amendment rights. The court correctly answered the question left open by the Supreme Court in Jones. It is worth noting that this case is precedent only in the Third Circuit, but readers be assured, Pennsylvania lies in the Third Circuit. There is the possibility that this case (or another like it) could reach the Supreme Court for a final determination, and we will provide an update should that occur.

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