Philly Court Makes It Harder for Government to Track Americans With GPS

But I'm sure The Man will still figure out a way to find you.

court-400Back in 2009 and 2010, a wave of burglaries hit pharmacies in the Philadelphia region. Most were Rite Aids. The thieves’ M.O. was consistent: they would disable the pharmacies’ alarm systems by cutting the external phone lines, and then they’d get to work pilfering the drug stores. Local police departments and the FBI eventually landed on a suspect: Philadelphia electrician Harry Katzin.

And so they did what you’ve seen cops and Ethan Hunt types do in the movies a million times. The local office of the FBI stuck a GPS tracking device on Katzin’s Dodge Caravan. And sure enough, it didn’t take long for Katzin to drive his van to a nearby Rite Aid, which was then burglarized, according to court records. Using the GPS tracker, police found Katzin and his two brothers in the van, along with a whole lot of Rite Aid merchandise and pill bottles. All three men were arrested.

The case has been winding its way through courtrooms, and on Tuesday, Philadelphia’s Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in the Katzin case, finding that investigators must obtain a warrant before slapping a GPS tracking device on a target’s vehicle. In January 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a different case that the installation of a GPS tracker on a target’s vehicle constituted a search, but the justices left open the question of whether such a search required a warrant under the Fourth Amendment. The Court of Appeals’ precedent-setting decision has answered that question.

The government had tried to argue that the evidence should be admissible, because authorities acted in good faith. But the court said that good faith didn’t cut it.

Here’s an excerpt from the decision:

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. 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.

“These protections are important because where people go reveals a great deal about them,” said ACLU attorney Catherine Crump, one of the lawyers representing the brothers in the appeal. “From who their friends are, where they visit the doctor and where they choose to worship.” Crump declared the court’s decision “a victory for all Americans because it ensures that the police cannot use powerful tracking technology without court supervision.”

Patty Hartman, spokesperson for the United States Attorney’s office in Philadelphia, declined to comment on the court’s decision. Chadds Ford attorney Thomas Dreyer, who represents Harry Katzin (the brothers each have their own counsel) called the court’s ruling “a long time coming.”

The three brothers are under house arrest pending the resolution of their criminal cases, which could be thrown out thanks to this new federal ruling. Sounds like Rite Aids better install some new alarm systems.

Read the court’s opinion below: