Law enforcement agencies will have to get warrants if they want to track vehicles using GPS under a landmark federal court ruling.
In the first explicit ruling of its kind, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled  that the FBI violated three suspects’ rights by putting a tracker on their car without a warrant.
The 2-1 decision  in United States vs. Katzin  answered a question raised by a 2012 U. Supreme Court case, United States vs. Jones. In the earlier case the Supreme Court ruled that tracking of movements can be construed as a search under the Fourth Amendment. The Supreme Court, though, did not decide if a warrant is needed to use GPS devices – which the Third Circuit now says is required.
“(The) opinion offers a full-throated defense of the Fourth Amendment, and installs an important safeguard against unjustified government surveillance,” said Nathan Freed Wessler of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Limits the use of tracking devices
The Third Circuit case dealt with a gang of armed robbers dubbed the Katzin brothers. The FBI had attached a GPS tracking device to one of the brother’s vans in an attempt to monitor their movements.
The Third Circuit Court found that agents had violated the Fourth Amendment by attaching the device to the brothers’ car without a warrant. The ruling clearly bars the use of tracking devices attached to vehicle without warrants.
The decision is definitely a victory for privacy groups because it limits the use of tracking devices attached to vehicles.
“Where an officer decides to take the Fourth Amendment inquiry into his own hands, rather than to seek a warrant from a neutral magistrate — particularly where the law is as far from settled as it was in this case — he acts in a constitutionally reckless fashion,” the majority opinion read. “Here, law enforcement personnel made a deliberate decision to forego securing a warrant before attaching a GPS device directly to a target vehicle in the absence of binding Fourth Amendment precedent authorizing such a practice. . . . Excluding the evidence here will incentivize the police to err on the side of constitutional behavior and help prevent future Fourth Amendment violations.”
Some forms of warrantless tracking may still be legal
But some other kinds of tracking are not addressed by the Third Circuit, although the ACLU’s Wessler believes the ruling applies.
“As courts around the country consider challenges to warrantless location tracking by police (whether using GPS  devices or cell  phone  signals ), they would do well to follow the Third Circuit’s lead,” he said.
The issue of tracking is a complex one, and this ruling only deals with one kind of tracking. Another problem is that the case only covers a small area of the United States. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals only has jurisdiction over New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania.
Other Circuit Courts have ruled that police didn’t need to get warrants for GPS tracking. The Supreme Court has not ruled on whether warrants are required for such tracking, although it did rule that tracking is a search as defined by Fourth Amendment. The Third Circuit Court’s ruling would only apply to the entire country if it is upheld by the Supreme Court.
Still, the victory is an important one for the Fourth Amendment , civil liberties groups say. In a brief submitted to the court in Katzin the ACLU’s attorneys noted:
“Where an officer decides to take the Fourth Amendment inquiry into his own hands, rather than to seek a warrant from neutral magistrate, he acts in a constitutionally reckless fashion.”
Judge Joseph A. Greenaway, who wrote the majority opinion, was nominated by President Clinton. Joining him in the opinion was Judge D. Brooks Smith, a nominee of President George W. Smith. Judge Franklin Stuart Van Antwerpen, who dissented, also was nominated by Bush.