Police Need Warrant To Attach GPS To Cars
October 23, 2013

Appeals Court Says Police Must Obtain Warrant Before Attaching GPS Unit To Your Car

Michael Harper for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

A federal appeals court in Philadelphia has ruled law enforcement officials must first obtain a warrant before they can attach a GPS device to a suspect’s car. This ruling marks the conclusion of a case in which police officers attached a magnetic tracking device to the car of a trio of brothers who they suspected had broken into pharmacies in Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

The officers then tracked their car to a RiteAid pharmacy which had recently been burglarized. Later the police stopped the car, searched it, and found items which the brothers had allegedly just stolen from the RiteAid. In their case, the brothers argued the police had illegally obtained evidence using the GPS unit without a warrant and, therefore, the information gathered from the device must be thrown out of court.

The government appealed the ruling when the District Court decided in favor of the brothers and dismissed the GPS evidence. A three-judge appeals court has now upheld the original ruling and found the police officers’ actions to be in violation of the Fourth Amendment. According to the Washington Post, this marks the first time an appeals court has upheld and earlier ruling which found attaching a GPS unit to a car is considered a “search” and therefore requires a warrant.

"Today's decision is a victory for all Americans because it ensures that the police cannot use powerful tracking technology without court supervision and a good reason to believe it will turn up evidence of wrongdoing," said Catherine Crump, an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Staff Attorney. Ms. Crump argued in front of the appeals judges to uphold the District Court’s decision to require a search warrant before attaching GPS devices to vehicles.

"These protections are important because where people go reveals a great deal about them, from who their friends and business associates are to what doctors they go to," Crump added.

The appeals judges dismissed the government's arguments that the GPS tracking was legal because they had probable cause. In their decision, the judges stated: "Generally speaking, a warrant-less search is not rendered reasonable merely because probable cause existed that would have justified the issuance of a warrant." The government also argued they had a right to a GPS search through a vehicle search exception which gives police extra leeway when looking through a suspect's car.

"A GPS search extends the police intrusion well past the time it would normally take officers to enter a target vehicle and locate, extract, or examine the then-existing evidence,” argued the appeals judges when they upheld the court’s decision.

A 2011 Supreme Court decision marked the end of criminal prosecution of two night club owners who were convicted of operating a cocaine distribution ring. In their final ruling, another three-judge panel in the Supreme Court ruled “the whole of one’s movements over the course of a month” shows “far more than the individual movements it comprises.”

Though this ruling prohibits law enforcement officials from placing GPS devices on suspects’ cars without a warrant, a previous federal appeals court ruling made smartphone GPS data available to authorities. The appeals judges argued that sharing this data was not in violation of the Fourth Amendment because cell phone owners don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy when using their mobile devices.