Third Circuit Decision Requires Warrant for GPS Monitoring and Limits Good-Faith Exception to the Exclusionary Rule

Nov 06, 2013   

A decision by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals issued on October 23, 2013 marks an important development in the area of Fourth Amendment law. In this case,United States v. Katzin, the court held that law enforcement must obtain a warrant prior to a GPS search and that the search in this particular case cannot be excused on the basis of good faith. A copy of the precedential opinion can be found here.

At issue in the Katzin case were three related issues of Fourth Amendment law: First, whether the installation of a GPS device requires a warrant; second, what is the scope of the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule; and third, who has standing to move to suppress evidence obtained from the physical search of a car following a GPS search.

In 2009 and 2010, the states of Delaware, Maryland and New Jersey were hit by a wave of burglaries at Rite-Aid pharmacies. The method used in the various burglaries was largely consistent and the FBI came to suspect that Katzin and his two brothers were committing the burglaries using Katzin’s van. Suspicion increased as the pieces of the puzzle began falling into place. After consulting with the United States Attorney’s office, but without obtaining a warrant, the FBI affixed a “slap-on” GPS tracker to the exterior of Harry Katzin’s van. The device, which was attached to the car when it was parked on a public road, allowed the police to remotely monitor the location of the car in real-time. In just a few days the device yielded the results the FBI was after: the GPS showed the car parked for a few hours right next to a Rite-Aid pharmacy and when it finally moved, the police stopped the car, found the three brothers and, after a search of the car, found stolen property from the Rite-Aid pharmacy. All three defendants moved to suppress the evidence found in the van.

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution mandates as follows: “[T]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrant shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” As the text makes clear, a search or a seizure is a necessary prerequisite to a violation of the Fourth Amendment. In its opinion, the Third Circuit begins with the proposition that magnetically attaching a GPS device to a suspect’s automobile constitutes a search. Here, the Third Circuit relied upon the United States Supreme Court decision in U.S. v. Jones, 135 S. Ct. 945  (2012), and Justice Sotomayor’s concurring opinion, which reasoned that “when the government physically invades personal property to gather information, a search occurs.”

The Third Circuit further articulated that the Fourth Amendment does not protect individuals from all searches, justunreasonable ones. “[W]hether a particular search meets the reasonableness standard is judged by balancing its intrusion on the individual’s Fourth Amendment interest against its promotion of legitimate governmental interests.” Vernonia Sch. Dist. 47J v. Acton, 515 U.S. 646, 652 (1995). Under this general approach, the courts look at “the totality of the circumstances.” United States v. Knights, 534 U.S. 112, 118 (2001). More often than not, courts strike this balance in favor of the procedures described in the Warrant Clause of the Fourth Amendment. Thus, any search conducted outside the judicial process is “per se unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment – subject only to a few specifically established and well-delineated exceptions.” United States v. Harrison, 689 F.3d 301, 306 (3d Cir. 2012).

Next, the Third Circuit described the instances in which a search would be reasonable under the Fourth Amendment even absent a warrant, including exigent circumstances, cases of diminished privacy expectations and Terry and its progeny. However, as the Court noted, none of these instances is applicable in this case. Furthermore, the Court explained that the “automobile exception” to valid warrantless searches was not applicable because that exception is “limited to a discrete moment in time ”¦ [whereas] ”¦ [a]ttaching and monitoring a GPS tracker ”¦ creates a continuous police presence for the purpose of discovering evidence that may come into existence and/or be placed within the vehicle at some point in the future.”

The Third Circuit held that the evidence uncovered as a result of the police officer’s unconstitutional actions should be suppressed under the exclusionary rule. According to the Court the exclusionary rule was created to compel respect for the constitutional guaranty of the right of people to be protected against unreasonable searches and seizures, mandating that evidence obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment should not be available at trial.

The attorneys at Fuerst Ittleman David & Joseph, PL have extensive experience in the areas of white collar criminal defense.  They will continue to monitor developments in this and similar cases. If you have any questions, an attorney can be reached by emailing us at contact@fidjlaw.comor by calling 305.350.5690.