Installing GPS Devices Requires Search Warrant for Police

Law enforcement use of GPS tracking is equivalent to a search thereby triggering Fourth Amendment protections according to the Third Circuit. As established in U.S. v. Katzin, 2012 WL 1646894, police are required to obtain a search warrant before attaching a tracking device to a vehicle even if reasonable suspicion or probable cause has been established.

In Katzin, there had been a series of Rite Aid burglaries with the perpetrators using similar methods of entry each time. (Id. at 1) The FBI identified Harry Katzin as a possible person of interest. (Id. at 2). After using usual physical surveillance of Katzin, FBI agents went another step further and installed a GPS tracker on his Dodge van. It was the monitoring of this device that allowed the FBI to apprehend Katzin and two others after pulling them over while driving away from another Rite Aid burglary. Id.

Katzin moved to suppress the evidence discovered by the FBI through the GPS device and the Third Circuit granted the motion. The Court disagreed with the arguments put forth by the government, shooting down the propositions that reasonable suspicion and/or probable cause were sufficient to negate the need for a warrant.

Additionally, the Court struck down the government’s argument that its actions constituted a good faith exception to the search warrant requirement. “The Government contends that the FBI agent involved in this case, after consulting with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, acted in good faith reliance on case law in other circuits permitting warrantless GPS monitoring…” Id. at 7. However, the Court relied on U.S. v. Johnson, 73 L.Ed. 2d 202 (1982) which said,

“Official awareness of the dubious constitutionality of a practice would be counterbalanced by official certainty that, so long as the Fourth Amendment law in the area remained unsettled, evidence obtained through the questionable practice would be excluded only in the one case definitively resolving the unsettled question. Failure to accord any retroactive effect to Fourth Amendment rulings would encourage police or other courts to disregard the plain purport of our decisions and to adopt a let’s-wait-until-it’s-decided approach.”

The Third Circuit therefore declined to grant the government the good faith exception.

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