US court rules warrant required for GPS tracking of vehicles

The government used a GPS device attached to the van of Harry Katzin, one of the suspects in thefts of pharmacies, to track movements

By , IDG News Service |  Government

A U.S. appeals court has ruled that police must obtain a warrant prior to using a GPS device to track a vehicle, deciding on an unaddressed issue in an earlier Supreme Court order.

The decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit on Tuesday is considered a victory by privacy groups as a number of courts in the country grapple with the legal and privacy implications of using mobile phone location information and GPS in investigations by law enforcement.

In the case, United States v. Katzin, the government used a GPS device attached to the exterior of the van of Harry Katzin, one of the suspects in the burglaries of several pharmacies, to track his movements and those of his two brothers as they drove from one pharmacy to another. Police eventually arrested them.

A District Court upheld the claim of the Katzin brothers that the government had violated their Fourth Amendment rights by attaching the GPS tracking device without a warrant. The government, which had contended that a warrant was not required for use of the GPS device, appealed the ruling.

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects against unreasonable searches and seizures.

Unless there are some very highly specific circumstances, which were not present in the current case, "the police cannot justify a warrantless GPS search with reasonable suspicion alone," the appeals court wrote in its order.

The case is the first in which a federal appeals court has held explicitly that warrants are required for GPS tracking by police, said the American Civil Liberties Union, which was one of the amici curiae in the dispute. Described as "friend of the court," an amicus curiae is a party that is not directly involved in a litigation, but believe they may be impacted or have views on the matter before the court.

The government held that if officers are required to obtain a warrant and have probable cause prior to executing a GPS search, "officers could not use GPS devices to gather information to establish probable cause, which is often the most productive use of such devices," the court observed in its order.

In another case, United States v. Jones, the U.S. Supreme Court held last year that GPS tracking by attaching a device to a vehicle constituted a search under the Fourth Amendment. But the court did not decide on whether warrants were required.

"Among the issues that Jones left open, however, was whether warrantless use of GPS devices would be 'reasonable -- and thus lawful -- under the Fourth Amendment [where] officers ha[ve] reasonable suspicion, and indeed probable cause' to execute such searches," according to the ruling by the court of appeals.

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