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Federal court: Police must have warrant to track suspects with GPS

The Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is based in Philadelphia and has jurisdiction over courts in New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania. Recently, with regard to an alleged string of pharmacy burglaries, the federal appeals court ruled that investigators violated a man's Fourth Amendment rights by placing a GPS tracking device on his van without a warrant.

The man and his brothers are accused of burglarizing pharmacies in Delaware, Maryland and New Jersey. Authorities say the burglaries happened in 2009 and 2010, and when the GPS device was used in the investigation, the Third Circuit had not yet ruled on whether or not a warrant was needed for police to place a GPS device on a suspect's vehicle.

In 2012, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that authorities' use of a GPS tracker constituted an intrusion by the government, but the high court did not go so far as to say that police had to obtain a warrant to use GPS tracking. The Supreme Court decision left the question of warrantless GPS tracking up to the lower courts, and the Third Circuit is the first to say that affixing a GPS device to someone's vehicle requires police to get a warrant.

Regarding the alleged pharmacy burglaries, the Justice Department claimed that no warrant was necessary in using the GPS device because it was attached to the suspect's vehicle only for a brief time. That argument was unsuccessful, however, though the Justice Department could ask the Supreme Court to review the case if the Third District decides not to rehear it.

We've written before about the importance of challenging the legitimacy of a search warrant used in a criminal investigation, and defendants should also keep in mind that prosecutors will try to use evidence obtained without a search warrant. The legitimacy of a search warrant can be challenged in what is known as a Franks Hearing. To learn more about that and other criminal defense matters, please visit our page on search warrants.

Source: The Wall Street Journal, "Warrant Requirement for GPS Trackers Goes Unchallenged by Feds," Joe Palazzolo, Dec. 4, 2013

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