The Supreme Court held in United States v. Jones, 132 S. Ct. 945 (2012), that attaching a GPS device to a suspect’s vehicle constitutes a search under the Fourth Amendment, because it is a trespass/invasion of personal property. In United States v. Katzin, No. 12-2548, the Third Circuit answered what the Supreme Court left open in Jones: that law enforcement must obtain a warrant based on probable cause before attaching a GPS device to a suspect’s vehicle. The Court had "no hesitation in holding that the police must obtain a warrant prior to attaching a GPS device on a vehicle," finding that "a physical entry upon and occupation of an individual’s house or effects for purposes of ongoing GPS tracking" is "highly disconcerting." Notably, the Court suggested that the duration of the GPS tracking likely does not matter.
The Court rejected the government’s contention that warrantless GPS tracking is a "special needs case," or a case where the suspect has a diminished expectation of privacy, such as a probation search. The government also argued that warrantless GPS searches are permissible on a finding of reasonable suspicion. Finally, it argued that if the officers have probable cause, warrantless GPS searches should be permitted under the Fourth Amendment’s automobile exception. The Third Circuit rejected both of these arguments, explaining that a GPS search is an ongoing and much broader endeavor than a Terry stop or an automobile search.
Equally as important: the Third Circuit’s rejection of the government’s invocation of the Fourth Amendment’s good faith exception to the exclusionary rule. First, the agents did not act in good faith reliance on binding authority under Davis v. United States, 131 S. Ct. 2419 (2011). There was no binding Supreme Court or Third Circuit precedent when the agents attached the GPS device to Katzin’s van, and there was only a 3-1 circuit split in the government’s favor nationwide. The Third Circuit made clear that good faith reliance on binding precedent applies only when police reasonably rely on "seemingly immutable authority or information."
The Court also considered whether the exclusionary rule should be applied under the "cost of exclusion vs. benefit of deterrence" analysis. The Court concluded that suppression was required because deterrence was needed and can be achieved. Instead of erring on the side of caution, the agents deliberately bypassed the warrant process and made a "reckless" extrapolation of the law. The Court emphasized that police and prosecutors may not rely on "self derived" rules.
Finally, the Third Circuit rejected the government’s claim that the van’s passengers (Katzin’s brothers) had no standing to object to the vehicle stop. The government wanted the Court to analyze the stop of Katzin, based only on information gleaned through the illegal GPS search, separately from that of his brothers. The government argued that the stop of the brothers was properly based on the probable cause developed through the use of the information obtained during the GPS search. The Third Circuit held that under United States v. Mosley, 454 F.3d 249 (3d Cir. 2006), the vehicle stop must be treated as a single incident implicating the Fourth Amendment rights of all three brothers. All three of the van’s occupants therefore had standing to challenge the stop, and the evidence was properly suppressed by the district court.