Federal Court Rules that GPS Tracking Requires a Warrant

October 24, 2013

Thursday, October 24, 2013, by Kyle Evans
On Tuesday, the Third Circuit issued a ruling that requires law enforcement officials to obtain a warrant for GPS tracking. This case, United States v. Katzin, is the most recent to address privacy rights and GPS tracking since the Supreme Court held that using long-term GPS surveillance to monitor a suspected criminal constituted a search under the Fourth Amendment. The Supreme Court, however, did not extend their ruling to whether such a search requires a warrant.
The Katzin case arises out of a string of burglaries that occurred at various pharmacies in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland in 2009 and 2010. The burglars’ methods were consistent among the robberies, and police narrowed their investigation to Harry Katzin and his two brothers. The police approached the FBI for assistance, and in late 2010 attached a “slap-on” GPS tracker, which attaches magnetically to a vehicle’s exterior, without first obtaining a warrant. Police apprehended Katzin and his brothers with merchandise pharmacy after the tracking data revealed that they had left a recently robbed Rite Aid.
Before the District Court, the Brothers Katzin argued that the evidence gained from the tracking data should be inadmissible, as the police had failed to first obtain a warrant to use GPS tracking. The Government advanced several arguments against admissibility, claiming that they didn’t need a warrant to use GPS devices and that the police had acted in good faith when they installed the device. The District Court agreed with the Katzins and suppressed all evidence obtained because of the illegal GPS search. The Government appealed the decision, and the Third Circuit affirmed the lower court decision with this week’s ruling.

The opinion quoted an older Supreme Court case, hoping that excluding evidence obtained from a warrantless GPS search would “incentivize the police to err on the side of constitutional behavior and help prevent future Fourth Amendment violations.”

It’s currently unclear whether the Government will petition the Supreme Court to review the Third Circuit’s ruling. The Katzin ruling relies heavily on the precedent set in Jones, so if the Court grant certiorari it seems likely they will uphold the Third Circuit’s decision. Judge Greenaway, writing the decision, noted that the case occurred “at a time when courts were becoming more attuned to the argument that warrantless GPS surveillance violated the Fourth Amendment.” The opinion quoted an older Supreme Court case, hoping that excluding evidence obtained from a warrantless GPS search would “incentivize the police to err on the side of constitutional behavior and help prevent future Fourth Amendment violations.”
Civil liberties groups, such as the ALCU, are hailing the Third Circuit ruling as a victory. The Katzin decision is certainly a step in the right direction for privacy rights, but there’s still a lot of ground to cover. While citizens may be protected from unwarranted physical invasions into privacy, the Fifth Circuit recently held that police don’t need a probable cause warrant to access cellphone data. And in June, the Supreme Court held in Maryland v. King that “taking and analyzing an arrestee’s DNA” is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.