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October 25, 2013
  United States v. Katzin - Third Circuit
Headline: Third Circuit holds that warrantless use of a GPS tracking device is an illegal search under the Fourth Amendment even when officers have reasonable suspicion or probable cause to execute that search.

Area of Law: Fourth Amendment

Issues Presented: Are police required to obtain a warrant prior to attaching a GPS tracking device to an individual's vehicle for purposes of monitoring the vehicle's movement?
Is the warrantless use of a GPS device lawful under the Fourth Amendment if law enforcement officers have reasonable suspicion or probable cause to execute the search?
Should an unconstitutional warrantless GPS search be excused for purposes of the exclusionary rule, where police acted before the United States Supreme Court held that attaching a GPS device to a vehicle constituted a "search" under the Fourth Amendment?

Brief Summary: After a series of robberies at pharmacies in Delaware, Maryland, and New Jersey, police identified Harry Katzin, an electrician, as a suspect. To gather evidence, the FBI affixed a "slap-on" GPS tacking device to Harry Katzin's van without obtaining a warrant. After a few days, the GPS tracker yielded evidence that led state troopers to stop the van. After seeing evidence of a burglarized pharmacy from outside the van, the officers arrested Katzin along with his two brothers, Mark and Michael Katzin, who were in the van with him. Defendants moved to suppress the evidence discovered in the van claiming that attaching the GPS device without a warrant violated the Fourth Amendment. The District Court held in favor of the Defendants and suppressed all evidence obtained from the van. The Government appealed the District Court's decision on the grounds that a warrant was not required for the use of a GPS tracking device; that the police acted in good faith when installing the GPS device; and that Defendants Mark and Michael Katzin lacked standing to challenge the GPS search because they did not own the van. The Third Circuit first held that police must obtain a warrant prior to a GPS tracking device search. The Third Circuit reasoned that searches conducted without prior approval by judge or magistrate are per se unreasonable barring a few well defined exceptions, none of which applied here. The Third Circuit then held the "good faith" exception to the exclusionary rule also did not apply to the present case. Lastly, the Third Circuit held the Katzin brothers had standing to seek suppression of the evidence. The stop and search of the van constituted a single search in which all three occupants had their constitutional rights violated.

Significance (if any): This case is the first time a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has held the warrantless use of a GPS device is an illegal search even where police have reasonable suspicion or probable cause to execute the search.

Extended Summary: In 2009 and 2010, a wave of pharmacy robberies occurred in Delaware, New Jersey, and Maryland. The robberies all shared common tactics, including cutting external phone lines that would then disable the pharmacies' alarm system. Harry Katzin, a local electrician, eventually emerged as a suspect in the robberies. In late October 2010, Katzin was discovered crouching in bushes near a pharmacy. Although he was not arrested, the following day it was discovered that the phone lines to the pharmacy had been cut. In November 2010, Katzin, along with one of his brothers and another individual, were approached by the police while they were parked outside a different pharmacy. Katzin consented to a search of the vehicle, which yielded electrical tools, gloves, and ski masks. Katzin claimed those were all ordinary tools of an electrician and police let him go. The telephone lines to that pharmacy had also been cut. Following this encounter, police obtained footage of another burglarized pharmacy that showed a van similar to Katzin's parked outside of it for a long time. As Katzin emerged as a clear suspect, the FBI believed electronic tracking was necessary. After consulting with the United States Attorney's Office, the FBI placed a "slap-on" GPS tracker onto Katzin's vehicle. On December 15, 2010, after discerning Katzin's van had been parked in a particular location for two hours, police decided to apprehend him. State troopers stopped his van as local police discovered that the Rite Aid pharmacy closest to where the van had been parked had been burglarized. From the outside of the van, state troopers could see merchandise and equipment from the burglarized Rite Aid and arrested Katzin and his two brothers who were also in the van. All three brothers moved to suppress the evidence discovered in the van claiming the GPS tracking violated their Fourth Amendment rights. The District Court held in favor of the brothers and suppressed the evidence. The Government then appealed to the Third Circuit.
The Third Circuit first considered whether warrantless searches based on less than probable cause were constitutional. The Government argued that the warrantless use of a GPS device in this case constituted a reasonable search because the police action was based on reasonable suspicion. The Court considered three general categories of warrantless searches that are permitted based on less than probable cause: "special needs" cases; circumstances in which individuals have lessened privacy interests; and situations that could be characterized as a stop and frisk. The Court determined that this search was outside the "special needs" analysis because the purpose of the GPS tracking device was for ordinary crime control purposes. The Court then determined that Defendants did not have a diminished expectation of privacy prior to the arrest. Therefore, as ordinary citizens they were entitled to the full protection of the Fourth Amendment. Lastly, the Court distinguished this case from stop and frisk searches. The Court determined that absent some highly specific circumstances not present in this case, the police could not justify a warrantless GPS search with reasonable suspicion or probable cause alone.
The Government then argued that the automobile exception permitted the warrantless GPS tracking. The Court rejected that argument, distinguishing traditional automobile searches from GPS searches due to the extended duration of GPS tracking as well as the broader scope of information revealed from a GPS tracking device. The Court reasoned that purpose of GPS tracking was to discover future evidence, not evidence already in existence. The Court also noted that the duration of a GPS tracking search is significantly longer than the time it takes police to physically search a car.
After concluding that the search violated the Fourth Amendment, the Court then considered whether the evidence was properly suppressed under the exclusionary rule. The exclusionary rule mandates that evidence obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment should not be available at trial. The Supreme Court has recognized a "good faith" exception to that rule in cases where the police acted with an objectively reasonable good faith belief that their conduct was lawful. Here, however, the Court explained that there was an absence of binding precedent to support the officers' good faith belief that their conduct was lawful. While other jurisdictions have upheld GPS tracking as a reasonable search, the Third Circuit had yet to do so. To prevent police from conducting unreasonable searches in the future, the Court determined that the evidence should be excluded. The Court reasoned that excluding the evidence will deter police from future use of warrantless GPS tracking devices and will also discourage police from relying on non-precedential law when determining the legality of their duties. The Court also stated that acting on a government attorney's approval, standing alone, was insufficient to demonstrate good faith.
Finally, the Court determined that all three Katzin brothers had standing to challenge the admissibility of the evidence. The Court explained that the stop of Harry Katzin's van was a single incident that implicated the Fourth Amendment rights of all three brothers. The Court reasoned that the illegality of the stop as it related to Harry Katzin extended to the passengers of his vehicle.

Judge Van Antwerpen wrote an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part to the decision.

To read the full opinion, please visit

Panel (if known): Greenaway, Smith, and Van Antwerpen, Circuit Judges

Argument Date: March 19, 2013

Argument Location: Philadelphia, PA

Date of Issued Opinion: October 22, 2013

Docket Number: No. 12-2548

Decided: Affirmed.

Case Alert Author: Peter Moomjian

Counsel: Robert A. Zauzmer, Esq., Emily McKillip, Esq., Zane D. Memeger, Esq., Thomas M. Zaleski, Esq., for Appellants; Thomas A. Dreyer, Esq., William A. DeStefano, Esq., Rocco C. Cipparone Jr., Esq., L. Katherine Good, Esq., and John H. Knight, Esq., for Defendants.

Author of Opinion: Judge Greenaway

Circuit: Third Circuit

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Professor Mary Levy

    Posted By: Susan DeJarnatt @ 10/25/2013 08:12 PM     3rd Circuit  

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