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Federal Court in Philadelphia Rules on GPS Tracking Devices in Criminal Cases

by J.D. Garrett on November 4, 2013

Police must get a warrant to attach GPS tracking device to vehiclesWhether a client has been accused of rape, burglary, or robbery, in reviewing any criminal charge ,criminal defense attorneys must analyze much more than simply the acts that led to the alleged crime. Aside from whether the defendant committed the acts that he or she is charged with, defense attorneys must examine whether his or her Constitutional rights were violated when put under arrest. A defendant’s rights with regard to being stopped, searched, and arrested are an important aspect of any criminal case. If a person’s rights were violated, in some the charges may be dismissed.

Recent SCOTUS Search Case

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) made a particularly important ruling last year regarding criminal searches. In the United States v. Jones, a lower court convicted nightclub owner Antoine Jones of conspiracy to distribute cocaine for his suspected role in cocaine trafficking. In order to secure the conviction by gathering evidence, police had attached a GPS tracking device to Mr. Jones’ car when it was parked in a public parking lot. After following the car for four weeks, police had enough evidence regarding Mr. Jones’ travel for the prosecutor to obtain a guilty verdict.

On appeal, the United States Supreme Court reversed Mr. Jones’ conviction. The Court held that the government installing a GPS device to track a suspect constituted a search under the Fourth Amendment. The Court further held that in Mr. Jones’ case, the government had violated his rights against unreasonable searches and seizures. In so holding, the Court rejected the Justice Department’s arguments that GPS tracking devices should not be given Fourth Amendment protections because people do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy when they travel on public streets.

New Case

This month, a federal appeals court in Philadelphia expanded the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in holding that the government must first obtain a warrant before attaching a GPS unit to a suspect’s vehicle. The Washington Post reports that in U.S. v. Katzin, authorities suspected three brothers of burglarizing pharmacies in New Jersey, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. In order to gather evidence on the brothers, police attached a magnetic GPS unit to one of their cars. The police had consulted with the U.S. attorney’s office before using the GPS strategy, but they had failed to obtain a warrant to do so. The GPS unit led the police to a Rite Aid that had been burglarized, and they were able to stop the three brothers soon after. A search uncovered items that had been stolen from the recently burglarized Rite Aid.

The federal court agreed with the brothers that the evidence obtained by using the GPS unit was not admissible in court because the police did not obtain a warrant to attach it to car. The ruling is the first from a federal appellate court after Jones to hold that GPS tracking devices are searches that require a warrant.

A defendant’s constitutional rights are extremely important, and cannot be discounted in any criminal case. Constitutional law and criminal procedure is very complex, and often requires skill and experience to understand. If you have been charged with violating criminal laws in Virginia, you should immediately speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney. A criminal defense attorney can help you understand what your rights are and may be able to defend your case. Call an attorney at Garrett Law Group, PLC, today for a confidential consultation.

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