Warrantless GPS tracking of vehicles is unconstitutional, US court rules

Filed Under: Law & order, Privacy

Gavel, image courtesy of ShutterstockGavel, image courtesy of ShutterstockAttaching a GPS to a car without a search warrant is unconstitutional, the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled on Tuesday.

The decision comes as a victory for the privacy groups that filed an amicus brief in November 2012, asking that the court consider whether law enforcement agents should have to obtain a warrant based on probable cause before attaching a GPS tracker to a car and tracking its movements.

The case involves a GPS tracker that police attached to a car belonging to Harry Katzin.

Police suspected that Katzin, along with his brothers Mark and Michael Katzin, had robbed a number of Rite Aid pharmacies in the US state of New Jersey in 2009 and 2010.

All three brothers had criminal histories that included burglary and theft. In addition, Harry had been found crouching beside some bushes outside of a Rite Aid that reported suspicious activity.

Police knew where he parked his van, the court papers say.

In the early hours of a mid-December morning, they went to the street in Philadelphia, and without going before a judge to get a warrant, they attached a so-called "slap-on" GPS tracker to Harry Katzin's van.

The trackers are called slap-on because they magnetically attach to a vehicle, are battery-operated, and require no electronic connection to a car.

Police used the GPS tracker to follow the Katzins when they traveled to another Rite Aid, where they were arrested.

The case revolved around the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution, which prohibits unreasonable searches.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) had argued in its amicus brief that warrants are essential in such cases because, as the Supreme Court has written, they provide "the detached scrutiny of a neutral magistrate, which is a more reliable safeguard against improper searches than the hurried judgment of a law enforcement officer engaged in the often competitive enterprise of ferreting out crime."

The ACLU said that the safeguard of a warrant is particularly important with GPS tracking, which is "cheap, convenient, difficult to detect, and highly intrusive."

The ACLU went on:

Because cost and effort will not deter excessive and unjustified use of GPS tracking, it is essential that courts impose strict requirements before Americans are subject to this powerful technology.

And we have most certainly been subjected to this powerful technology.

Courts are grappling with the intersection between GPS, drones, mobile phone data, and the Fourth Amendment.

One such case, United States v. Graham, involved police having amassed an astonishing 221 days worth of cell phone records, all retrieved without a warrant.

GPS. image courtesy of ShutterstockIn another case, United States v. Jones, the US Supreme Court held last year that GPS tracking by attaching a device to a vehicle constituted a search under the Fourth Amendment.

That case didn't address whether warrants were reasonable and thus lawful under the Fourth Amendment, the court of appeals said on Tuesday.

Given that the police acted unconstitutionally in the case of Katzin, the court said, all evidence collected from the police via GPS tracker will be suppressed.

The government had argued that it's tough to establish the probable cause needed for a warrant without using information such as GPS data to back it up.

Harry Katzin was found crouching in some bushes. A search showed he was equipped with electrical tools, gloves, and ski masks.

What do you think, is that not enough to establish probable cause? Did police really need to track his van without a warrant?

Legal experts, I'd love to get your input in the comments section below.

Image of gavel and GPS map courtesy of Shutterstock.

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21 Responses to Warrantless GPS tracking of vehicles is unconstitutional, US court rules

  1. Andy · 177 days ago

    I must say I agree with the judge

  2. Gavin · 177 days ago

    This is the line from the ACLU that most chills me:

    "...the often competitive enterprise of ferreting out crime."

    I have great respect for most police officers that are prepared to take on a dangerous job for the greater good, but if catching criminals is some kind of competitive sport then of course abuses are going to be widespread. How did the police involved get their hands on the slap-on GPS tracker in the first place? Are the devices dispensed with any training? Why are they handed out at all unless an officer can show a warrant stating that he/she needs one? In my view there must be some seriously broken upstream issues, the end result being that the cops on the streets are much more likely to find themselves in poorly considered or even downright unconstitutional situations.

    With the whole NSA fiasco making these issues seem almost trivial I'm very happy to see the ACLU victory and the 4th amendment upheld by the Judge. Thanks to all concerned.

    • Randy · 177 days ago

      Catching criminals is not a competitive sport simply because the ACLU says it is. Remember the ACLU is a group of socialistic lawyers - liars twice over. If the word "competition" could even remotely be used to describe a police officer it would have to be used to describe the relationship between the officer and the criminal. I for one hope the policemen win.
      As for "getting their hands on the slap-on GPS tracker in the first place", GPS trackers are available for a very modest price almost anywhere on the internet.
      The ACLU has a long history and reputation for throwing legal monkey wrenches into good laws and defending criminals and moral degenerates. They are nothing more than communists who have used very noble words in their name to cover a very rotten core value system.
      This is common knowledge in America. When we read that the ACLU is involved in something we instinctively roll our eyes and prepare for the worse.

    • John Q. Smith · 177 days ago

      @Gavin that comment by the ACLU is a crock. Law enforcement professionals are way too busy to waste time as the ACLU would have you believe. There is no "competitive Sport " as you say , their goal is to return to their loved ones alive and unhurt after long days and nights working to keep you safe.. And yes there are exceptions but in this case the ACLU backed the wrong horse..

  3. Serpico · 177 days ago

    Whatever happened to good old police work? Cant they devote one undercover cop to tail them for a day or a week? They'd still have the same data. Seems police just wants to take the easy way out these days. Whether its using tasers on individuals (when they could have easily taken them down themselves) or whether its using gps.

  4. Well duh. The constitution isn't hard to understand. If it is difficult, the citizens and their protection should be the default winner every time.

  5. Randy · 177 days ago

    "In another case, United States v. Jones, the US Supreme Court held last year that GPS tracking by attaching a device to a vehicle constituted a search under the Fourth Amendment"
    I guess I'd better start a class action lawsuit against General Motors and it's largest shareholder, the United States government. GPS units have been "slapped on" to almost every GM vehicle for years. It's called OnStar.

    • Steve · 177 days ago

      OnStar is purchased and used voluntarily by the vehicle's owner. GPS in a smartphone or other mobile device, likewise. A "slap-on" GPS unit covertly attached to an unsuspecting citizen's vehicle is a wholly different matter.

      • Randy · 176 days ago

        Not always voluntarily. In the event of a crash, the GPS is automaticly activates and sends a signal to the OnStar branch office. They then ask you if you need assistance. If you do not respond then they give your GPS location to your local police who then drive to your location and determine what the situation is.
        The GPS units in OnStar equipped vehicles has also been used to track stolen cars. My point is that they can turn it on and off at will, with or without your knowledge.

  6. Mel · 177 days ago

    If GPS tracking devices are a violation of the 4th Amendment, what about all the surveillance cameras lining the streets and highways throughout the US?

    • Randy · 176 days ago

      Oh, that's totally different. They are there to "protect" us:)

  7. John Q. Smith · 177 days ago

    I believe that the police had probable cause.As you note in your article, the police were in an ongoing investigation with several Rite Aid robberies having already occurred . Their goal is to stop crime and apprehend the perpetrators . The crime of robbery always has the potential for violence. In this case the ACLU is so busy looking at the 4th Amendment they chose to ignore the facts that you presented in your article. Protecting their rights is considered noble by some, but what about the rights of their victims ??

    • Steve · 177 days ago

      That probable cause would have been sufficient to obtain a proper search warrant to allow them to attach the GPS tracker to the van and subsequently gain the evidence needed to bust them and get a conviction. Instead, the criminals got away, and the victims who were deprived of their rights do not see the crooks brought to justice.

      Cops who take shortcuts often fail to accomplish their mission.

  8. john · 177 days ago

    So, how were police able to catch criminals before GPS?

  9. Anti-NSA · 177 days ago

    Rules the courts that allows the NSA to illegally collect private call/text information of anyone they wish to anywhere in the world. Pathetic.

  10. Roy · 177 days ago

    Just say NO to 1984.

    ACLU 1. Big Brother 0.

    Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.

    Benjamin Franklin, Historical Review of Pennsylvania, 1759

    US author, diplomat, inventor, physicist, politician, & printer (1706 - 1790)

  11. Steve · 176 days ago

    You nailed it Roy! Everyone is so quick to give up rights until they come knocking on your door. If we continue to allow this then eventually we'll have a police nation where authorities can demand access to anyone, anywhere - even in your own home - without any justification at all, as long as it's in the name of so-called protection.

    Stand up for your rights now or you'll lose them!!! Don't wait until it's your door they're knocking on!!!

  12. Jack Wilborn · 175 days ago

    Agreed. I don't agree with ACLU a lot of the times either. Being retired LEO (Law Enforcement Officer) I have some insight into what is happening, although it's not applicable to all instances. Why not have a detective follow them? This is legal and will ensure no problems with constitutional issues. The real culprit is to not let them get going down a rad they WILL, in time, run over you. It's followed in many circumstances that they try different ways and unless confronted, will keep using that path. If they put a video camera in your car, is that OK, maybe the next step. As many have chirped in that you can't wait, after the door is closed it's too late... We need the checks and balance routines to ensure they watch what they do. We don't want it out in the public view, but if they could they would...

    Best this way, just get a warrant!

    Jack

  13. Bounty Hunter · 174 days ago

    The Police do this all the time. And most of the time they use the GPS in your phone to track you. No warrant needed...

  14. Ellioh · 173 days ago

    "How very curious!" That small piece of map you used in the article is from St. Petersburg, Russia. It clearly shows the Liteyny bridge across the Neva and Letniy sad ("Summer garden"). :-D

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About the author

I've been writing about technology, careers, science and health since 1995. I rose to the lofty heights of Executive Editor for eWEEK, popped out with the 2008 crash, joined the freelancer economy, and am still writing for my beloved peeps at places like Sophos's Naked Security, CIO Mag, ComputerWorld, PC Mag, IT Expert Voice, Software Quality Connection, Time, and the US and British editions of HP's Input/Output. I respond to cash and spicy sites, so don't be shy.