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ACLU Asks Appeals Court to Require a Warrant for GPS Tracking

Catherine Crump,
Staff Attorney,
ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project
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November 14, 2012

Yesterday we asked the Third Circuit Court of Appeals to consider our argument that law enforcement agents should have to obtain a warrant based on probable cause to attach a GPS tracker to a car and track its movements (you can read our amicus brief here).

In the case, the government suspected that Harry, Mark and Michael Katzin had robbed a number of Rite-Aid pharmacies. To confirm their hunch they attached a GPS tracker—without first going to a judge and getting a warrant—to Harry Katzin’s car. They used the GPS tracker to follow the Katzins when they traveled to another Rite-Aid, and arrested them shortly afterwards.

The question in the case is whether the agents violated the Fourth Amendment when they attached a GPS tracker to a car to track its movements without first obtaining a warrant based on probable cause. The Supreme Court unanimously held in January that such tracking is a Fourth Amendment search. But now the government, which used to argue that GPS tracking isn’t even a search, is insisting that it falls into an exception to the usual rule that a search requires a warrant. For example, the government claims the “automobile exception” applies, but that exception was created to ensure that contraband concealed in cars would not escape detection, not to permit tracking of individuals.

We are asking the Third Circuit to reject this argument. Warrants are essential because, as the Supreme Court has written, they provide “the detached scrutiny of a neutral magistrate, which is a more reliable safeguard against improper searches than the hurried judgment of a law enforcement officer engaged in the often competitive enterprise of ferreting out crime.”

This safeguard is particularly important when it comes to GPS tracking because the technology is cheap, convenient, difficult to detect, and highly intrusive. Because cost and effort will not deter excessive and unjustified use of GPS tracking, it is essential that courts impose strict requirements before Americans are subject to this powerful technology.

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