THIRD CIRCUIT RULES THAT INSTALLATION OF A GPS TRACKING DEVICE ON A PRIVATE AUTOMOBILE REQUIRES A WARRANT

New Jersey Criminal Lawyers Schwartz Posnock

In a new ruling that applies to both State and federal law enforcement officers in New Jersey, The Third Circuit Court of Appeals decided on October 22, 2013 that police officers and federal agents must get a warrant in order to put a GPS tracking device on a car or truck to monitor the travels of a suspect they are investigating. The decision, United States v. Katzin (12-2548), represents controlling precedent in criminal cases in the federal courts in Newark, Trenton, and Camden, and in Superior Court criminal cases throughout New Jersey.

The Third Circuit is the first federal appeals court to add a warrant requirement to a practice that the Supreme Court ruled, in last year’s decision in United States v. Jones, was a search governed by the Fourth Amendment. (See the February 2012 Schwartz & Posnock blog post on the Jones case below). In the Jones decision, the Court ruled that installation of such a device on a private vehicle is a search, but it left open the question of police authority to use that technology.

Electronically linked to satellites circling the world, a Global Positioning System device tracks a continuing sequence of precise locations of the device and, if it is attached to a car or truck, it logs the vehicle’s precise location. Police can monitor it from a central location, and thus don’t have to physically follow or observe the vehicle.

In the Katzin case, the Third Circuit ruled that installing a GPS tracking device was a search requiring a warrant. It is not enough for police to install a GPS device based only on a “reasonable suspicion” that a vehicle is being used in criminal activity.
While individuals in their cars have a lowered expectation of privacy, that is not enough to do away with a warrant requirement. The Court held that electronic monitoring by a GPS device can “generate a precise, comprehensive record of a person’s public movements that reflects a wealth of detail about her familial, political, professional, religious, and sexual associations.”

The ruling also held that a GPS tracking device allows the police to gather future evidence of crime, because this technology involves “an ever-watchful electronic sentinel” looking for such evidence.
This decision is significant for individuals charged with federal or state criminal offenses in New Jersey. Criminal defense counsel should consider the potential for a motion to suppress evidence and other unlawfully obtained evidence (known as the “fruit of the poisonous tree”). To discuss the significance of this decision and to determine whether it may apply to your case, contact Schwartz & Posnock in our Monmouth County, Union County, Essex County and Middlesex County offices to schedule a consultation.

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