PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A U.S. appeals court on Wednesday ruled that prosecutors can use evidence gathered after a GPS device was put on a suspect’s van without a warrant.
The decision is a blow to three Philadelphia brothers charged in a series of pharmacy robberies, and for civil rights lawyers concerned about the reach of police power in the technological age.
“It’s disappointing that today’s decision lets law enforcement agents off the hook in a broader range of circumstances,” said Catherine Crump, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley who argued the case in May for the American Civil Liberties Union.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 said that GPS tracking amounts to a police search but left unresolved the question of whether warrants are always needed.
The Pennsylvania case began two years earlier, when Pennsylvania state police investigating the multi-state burglaries found tools, gloves and a ski mask during a search of electrician Harry Katzin’s van. He said they were work tools, and he was let go.
Police soon put a GPS device under his bumper and stopped the van after another burglary near Philadelphia. They found Katzin and his brothers Mark and Michael inside, along with a large stash of pills, cash and other store property.
A federal judge threw the evidence out because police had not gotten a warrant for the GPS device. A three-judge panel of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, but the government appealed, leading to a rehearing before all 13 circuit judges in May.
The court voted 8-5 to reverse the case and said the evidence could be used at trial. The court found that police could reasonably have believed they did not need a warrant under existing law. However, they warned police to use caution going forward when using GPS devices, which can track someone round-the-clock for days and even weeks.
The Katzins, who have been free on bail, will now be given a trial date in Philadelphia.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Zauzmer, who argued the government’s appeal, said he was pleased with the ruling but otherwise declined comment.