The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit is set to become the first federal appellate court to answer the question left open by the Supreme Court in United States v. Jones. Last year, the Court held in Jones that a Fourth Amendment “search” occurs, and a warrant is required, when a GPS tracking device is attached by law enforcement to a person’s vehicle and then used to track its movements. The Court did not consider when, if ever, that type of search would be exempt from the Constitution’s warrant requirement.
Last month, the 3rd Circuit heard oral arguments on that question. It is expected to issue its decision later this year.The appeal relates to the prosecution of Harry, Michael, and Mark Katzin — three brothers charged with the burglary of a Rite Aid pharmacy in Pennsylvania. In 2009, authorities began investigating a rash of pharmacy burglaries in the Northeast. Most of the crimes targeted Rite Aid stores and appeared related because each occurred after someone had cut the wires to the pharmacy’s alarm system. Eventually, authorities identified Harry Katzin as a person of interest. He had been implicated in suspicious activities involving other Rite Aid pharmacies and was known to keep electrician’s tools, gloves and ski masks in his van.
Initially, agents physically tracked Katzin’s movements. Then they decided more comprehensive surveillance was needed, so they attached a GPS tracking device to Katzin’s bumper and waited. Two or three days later, the tracking device showed that the van had stopped at a Rite Aid store in Hamburg, Pa. After the van left, one agent drove to the store to confirm it had been burglarized while state troopers followed the van onto the highway. When the burglary was confirmed, troopers stopped the van and arrested the Katzins. Only then did authorities obtain a search warrant, which led to their discovery of merchandise from the Rite Aid store, parts of the pharmacy’s alarm system, and Schedule II drugs.
In April 2011, the brothers were charged with pharmacy burglary and possession of Schedule II drugs with intent to distribute. They filed a pretrial motion to suppress the evidence found in the van. At that time, neither the 3rd Circuit nor the Supreme Court had decided whether the attachment and use of an external GPS tracking device constitutes a Fourth Amendment search. In early 2012, the Jones Court made clear that it does. Applying Jones, the trial judge granted the Katzins’ motion, and the government appealed.
On appeal, the government argues that the search in question, i.e., the attachment and use of the GPS device, falls within one of two exceptions to the warrant requirement. Under the “reasonable suspicion” exception, a warrantless search may be conducted under limited circumstances if the minimal intrusion on the individual’s privacy is outweighed by a legitimate government interest. In this case, the government contends, the “trespass” to Katzin’s van was minimal because it involved the placement of a magnetic GPS device on the bumper. Subsequent monitoring of the device was minimally intrusive because it revealed only the location of the van — information that could be obtained by physical surveillance. In the government’s view, these minimal intrusions were outweighed by the government’s interests in investigating crime.
The government also argues that the search falls within the “probable cause” exception. Under that exception, officers may conduct a warrantless search of an automobile if there is probable cause to believe it contains contraband or if exigent circumstances make a warrant application impractical. The government claims that no warrant was required in this case because officers had probable cause to believe that Katzin would use his van to burglarize another Rite Aid pharmacy.
The Katzin brothers counter that neither exception applies. First, the “reasonable suspicion” exception does not apply because the officers installed the device without a reasonable, articulable suspicion that criminal activity was afoot at the time of installation. Instead, the officers proceeded on a hunch that turned out to be right. The Constitution requires more than that.
The “probable cause” exception does not apply because, when the officers installed the device, they had no reason to believe there was contraband in the van or that the van was readily mobile, which might have made a warrant application impractical. As the Katzins point out, the officers attached the device in the dead of night on a deserted street. If the officers had evidence to support probable cause under those circumstances, they should have applied for a warrant.
Our sense is that the trial court will be upheld. The Fourth Amendment’s baseline requirement is that searches be conducted pursuant to a valid warrant supported by probable cause. These facts do not appear to support an exception. As the trial judge noted, the government argues for application of the “reasonable suspicion” exception based on its general interest in efficient law enforcement. The government did not prove that the special needs of this case required the warrantless intrusion visited on the defendants.
Likewise, the government argues for application of the “probable cause” argument based on the officers’ general suspicion that Katzin would use his van to commit a crime in the coming days, weeks, or months. The government did not prove that the officers had probable cause to believe that a crime was in progress when the device was attached. If courts do not hold the line on these exceptions, the Fourth Amendment will be eviscerated.