Warrantless GPS Surveillance Allowed by U.S. Third Circuit Court
A new ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit erodes Fourth Amendment protections for people accused of crimes by upholding the use of warrantless GPS tracking by a police department.
The Fourth Amendment protects Americans from unreasonable searches and seizures, and the Exclusionary Rule developed through court precedent prevents evidence obtained through unreasonable searches and seizures from being used against a defendant in court. Evidence obtained through searches conducted without a search warrant often may be kept out of court under the Exclusionary Rule.
However, the courts have created an exception to the Exclusionary Rule called the good faith exception that says when a reasonably trained police officer believes the actions he or she is taking to obtain evidence are legal, the evidence may be admitted in court.
In United States v. Katzin, No. 12-2548, Oct. 1, 2014, investigators from police agencies and the FBI in the Philadelphia area suspected Harry Katzin had a connection to a string of pharmacy burglaries in the region. Police contacted Katzin and his brothers Michael and Mark several times without arresting them. All of them had prior criminal arrests for burglary and theft, and a van similar to the one Katzin drove turned up in surveillance footage from a burglarized pharmacy. Police searched Katzin’s van at one point when he and his brothers were found sitting in it near a pharmacy, and found tools, work gloves, and ski masks inside, but made no arrests that day.
At one point, investigators decided to use electronic surveillance to track Katzin. An Assistant U.S. Attorney told the officers that they would not need a warrant to attach a battery-powered GPS device to Katzin’s van. They did so in December 2010 while the van was parked on a public street.
Two days later, the GPS device showed investigators that Katzin’s van had traveled to a Rite Aid store and sat there for two hours after circling the neighborhood. After the van left the Rite Aid, local police told investigators that the pharmacy had been burglarized. Troopers found the van and pulled it over, and arrested Katzin and his brothers.
At their trial, the three Katzin brothers argued that the Fourth Amendment required that investigators should have gotten a warrant to attach the GPS device to the van and that any evidence recovered from the van should be suppressed under the Exclusionary Rule. The trial court in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania agreed, but the U.S. Attorneys appealed.
The case then went to the Third Circuit, where a divided panel of three judges upheld the district court’s ruling in a decision issued in October 2013. Since then, it’s been the rule for law enforcement in states within the Third Circuit — which includes Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey — that law enforcement officers or agents who want to use GPS devices to track suspects would have to first get a warrant or evidence could be excluded under the Exclusionary Rule. Prior to this case, there was no specific jurisprudence addressing the warrantless use of GPS devices.
The U.S. Attorneys appealed again, and the case went to the full Third Circuit court. In the decision issued Oct. 1, the court ruled 8-5 to reverse the previous rulings. This time, the Third Circuit majority ruled that the good faith exception applied and evidence seized from the van could be admissible in court.
In the past, the good faith rule wouldn’t apply when there was no applicable case law that would allow law enforcement to determine the legality of their actions. The Third Circuit’s court represents an expansion of that rule — and tips the scale in favor of police agencies being allowed to use surveillance without first getting a warrant.
For criminal defendants, the ability to suppress evidence that is obtained without a warrant often is the only way to challenge police when they violate a person’s constitutional rights. The decision in Katzin makes it that much harder to hold police agencies accountable and for attorneys to protect the constitutional rights of people accused — but not yet convicted — of crimes.