U.S. Third Circuit - The FindLaw 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries Blog

Government's Warrantless GPS Tracking Violates 4th Amendment

Yesterday, the Third Circuit decided a case that could have a ripple effect across the nation.

The case involved the brothers Katzin, and their spree of burglaries of Rite Aid pharmacies across three states. When Harry Katzin emerged as a suspect through investigation, police consulted with the United States Attorney's office, and put a "slap-on" GPS tracker on Katzin's van -- without first obtaining a warrant.

Law enforcement tracked the brothers, and right after a Ride Aid pharmacy was burgled, the men were stopped in their van. A search of the vehicle turned up items that had been stolen from Rite Aid. Before trial, the brothers moved to suppress evidence obtained in the van, and the district court agreed, suppressing the evidence.

Post-Jones GPS Searches

On appeal, the Third Circuit had to determine whether police are required to get a warrant before attaching a "slap-on" GPS system onto a person's vehicle. This question brought to light issues left unanswered by the Supreme Court in its recent Jones decision.

In Jones, the Supreme Court held that, for purposes of Fourth Amendment jurisprudence, magnetically attaching a GPS device to a vehicle constituted a search. The majority came to this conclusion under the theory that a GPS device was a physical intrusion, while a concurring opinion came to the same conclusion under the "reasonable expectation of privacy" theory.

Exceptions to the Warrant Requirement

The court was not persuaded by the government's assertions that exceptions to the warrant requirement applied here. Distinguishing established precedent, the court noted that the reasonable suspicion standard played out in "stop and frisk" scenarios were different because GPS tracking "is an ongoing, vastly broader endeavor." The court also easily distinguished this case from the "automobile exception" because exigent circumstances were not present here. Quoting the Supreme Court, the court noted: "The word 'automobile' is not a talisman in whose presence the Fourth Amendment fades away and disappears."

Exclusionary Rule

Since the court found that law enforcement should have obtained a warrant before applying the "slap-on" GPS device, the next question before the court was whether the evidence should be excluded, or allowed under the good-faith exception. Because the law was unsettled, the court found that excluding the evidence here was the correct decision to further the policy to deter Fourth Amendment violations.

Legal Ramifications

The Third Circuit is the first circuit court to squarely address this issue; the First Circuit had an opportunity, but declined to decide it, stating, "even if the agents' use of the GPS tracker in this case was unconstitutional, their conduct fits within the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule."

Noting the significance of this decision, ACLU attorney Catherine Crump stated: "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," reports Ars Technica.

Whether the government will appeal remains to be seen, but the Supreme Court may want to wait until the issue makes its way through the other circuits. On the other hand, it may want to clarify it's less than crystalline holding in Jones.

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