Court Ruling: GPS Tracking Requires Warrant

Our South Florida defense attorneys applaud a Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that law enforcement officers must first have a warrant (based on probable cause) in order to attach a GPS tracking device to a suspect’s vehicle in order to track his or her movements.
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Protection of the innocent is at the bedrock of our criminal justice system, and according to the system, everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty. Police can’t just go around attaching GPS devices to vehicles of people they think are suspicious. They are no more allowed to track the movements of a suspected bank robber (without a warrant) than they are to track the movements of their next-door neighbor who they happen not to like.

In this particular case, as reported in this Washington Post article, police had attached GPS tracking devices to the van owned by a trio of brothers who were suspected of involvement in pharmacy burglaries in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Maryland. Before attaching the GPS to the van, police consulted a U.S. Attorney’s office, but they did not obtain a warrant for the practice, which the Supreme Court had ruled is a form of “search and seizure.”

The police did track the van to a recently burglarized pharmacy, and caught up with the suspected robbers shortly thereafter. When they did confront the individuals, they reportedly came across items that from the pharmacy that had been robbed. When charges were brought against them, in United States v. Katzin, the defendants maintained that the evidence could not be used against them because it was obtained without a warrant and thus was inadmissible.

A District Court agreed with them. When the government appealed the District Court’s decision to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, they got the same, resounding: you can’t track people without a warrant!

The Supreme Court of the United States has previously acknowledged that GPS tracking is a form of “search and seizure,” but in that 2012 ruling, the Court stopped short of ruling whether or not that form of search and seizure necessitated a warrant. As such, the case in which this particular ruling was issued, United States v. Katzin, is the first in which a federal appeals court definitely ruled that a warrant is necessary for police to use a GPS to track an individual. The court held that in making their decision they were tasked with interpreting the Fourth Amendment, which of course guarantees Americans protection from unreasonable search and seizure. In the end, thankfully, the Philadelphia federal appeals court stood strong in protecting the rights of U.S. citizens.

Technology today is not what it was during the late 18th century, when the Constitution and Bill of Rights, documents we look to for guidance and answers in setting guidelines in our criminal justice system. With new technologies, including cars, cell phones, GPS tracking devices, etc., many new questions are raised. With the new freedom that new technology affords us comes increased methods of surveillance and invasion of privacy, as evidenced by the police, without a warrant, tracking the movements of non-criminals. Police can’t just spy on you, and use technology to record where you go and what you do, without a warrant based on probably cause. Because of this firm belief in the rights of U.S. citizens, we join the American Civil Liberties Union in declaring victory with regard to this ruling.

If you are charged with a crime in Palm Beach or Broward counties, contact the Law Offices of Leifert & Leifert, a Partnership of Former Prosecutors, for a free consultation to discuss your rights. Call 1.888.5.DEFEND.

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