GPS Tracker attached to vehicle violated the rights of burglary suspect

The United States Constitution mandates that individuals must be protected against unreasonable searches and seizures and that warrants allowing such searches must be based on probable cause. However, as technology evolves, questions arise as to what constitutes a "search."

Specifically, the recent United States Court of Appeals case of United States v. Katzin discussed whether a warrantless search using a Global Positioning System tracking device in a burglary investigation was constitutional.

A suspect identified . . . and tracked

Police were investigating a series of pharmacy burglaries when the defendant emerged as a suspect. The defendant had a prior criminal history that included burglary and theft, including a pharmacy burglary in the past. The defendant had also allegedly been sighted outside of several pharmacies recently, where phone lines had been cut-part of the pattern used in the unsolved burglaries.

At this point in the investigation, officers placed a magnetically attached a GPS tracker on the exterior of the defendant's vehicle in Philadelphia without obtaining a warrant. Several days later, the tracker indicated that the van was in the vicinity of a pharmacy which was just burglarized. Upon stopping the van, pill bottles and other material from the pharmacy were discovered.

At trial, the defendant moved to suppress the evidence on the grounds that the police did not have a warrant supporting placement of the GPS tracking device.

Tracker extends the police intrusion

The Court of Appeals explained that, prior to 1967, the United States Supreme Court interpreted the Constitution to apply only to police physically intruding on an individual's private property. However, changes in technology led to a shift in protecting people, rather than places, with the rule applied to everything from phone booths to pagers.

Here, the warrantless search was not rendered reasonable simply because the police arguably might have had probable cause to justify the issuance of a warrant. Although there is an "automobile exception" which allows a warrantless search, based on probable cause, of any part of a vehicle that might conceal evidence of a crime, such a search is limited to a discrete moment in time.

A GPS tracker is different: it creates a continuous police presence for the purpose of discovering evidence that might be in the vehicle in the future. A GPS-related search extends the police intrusion past the timeframe that would usually be necessary to search a vehicle to locate then-existing evidence.

On this and other grounds, the court thus held that the police must acquire a warrant before attaching a GPS device on a vehicle. The defendant's motion to suppress the evidence in the criminal proceedings was affirmed.

A defense based on the facts

A criminal conviction creates a permanent criminal record and may involve time in jail and fines as well. If you are accused of a crime such as burglary or theft, immediately contact an experienced criminal defense attorney. Seek representation from a lawyer who will work to uncover all the facts and act swiftly to create a defense based on those facts and the law.