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Federal Appeals Court Rules Evidence From Warrantless GPS Tracking Does Not Have to Be Suppressed

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals

A federal appeals court ruled that law enforcement does not need to get a warrant in order to legally use evidence obtained from surveillance in a criminal case. The court also effectively endorsed consultation among officials in the executive branch instead of going to a judge for a warrant as “good faith” conduct.

In 2010, FBI agents attached a GPS tracking device to the car of Harry Katzin in order to track his movements because they suspected he was involved in the robberies of multiple Rite-Aid pharmacies. The agents did not seek a warrant from a judge. They used the tracking device to follow Katzin as his car drove to another Rite-Aid, and Katzin was arrested.

The Supreme Court decided unanimously in US v. Jones in 2012 that when law enforcement attaches a GPS device to a vehicle and uses it to track a person a “search” under the Fourth Amendment is taking place.

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals did not dispute the fact that Katzin’s arrest was the result of warrantless surveillance, according to the Supreme Court decision. However, what the court did have a problem with was using the “exclusionary rule” to suppress the evidence from the surveillance, which violated Katzin’s Fourth Amendment rights.

The court ruled 8-5 that the evidence should not be suppressed. Judge Franklin Van Antwerpen, appointed to the appeals court by President George W. Bush, wrote the majority opinion [PDF].

“Despite its connection to the Fourth Amendment, there is no constitutional right to have the evidentiary fruits of an illegal search or seizure suppressed at trial,” Van Antwerpen argued in the court’s opinion. A Fourth Amendment violation does not automatically require exclusion of evidence. “The exclusionary rule is instead ‘a judicially created means of effectuating the rights secured by the Fourth Amendment.'”

Van Antwerpen further explained, “Where the particular facts of a case indicate that law enforcement officers “act[ed] with an objectively ‘reasonable good-faith belief’ that their conduct [was] lawful, or when their conduct involve[d] only simple, ‘isolated’ negligence,” there is no illicit conduct to deter.” The agents believed their actions were lawful.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."