Courts Uphold Ruling That Warrantless 'Slap-On' GPS Units Are Unconstitutional

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a pervious Supreme Court ruling stating federal authorities must seek out a warrant before equipping suspects' vehicles with GPS monitoring devices. {C} Previously, the Supreme Court had ruled that attaching such a device without a warrant constituted unreasonable search and seizure, a violation of the Fourth Amendment. This latest ruling said law enforcement officials need probable cause to obtain those warrants -- meaning they can't just be suspicious that a crime is happening.

    • Are You Being Followed?

      Do you ever get that feeling that you're being followed? Maybe you are. Everyone from law enforcement to car dealers are using GPS Devices to track people's rides. If you suspect something is up, you might want to check the following places.

      Photo: GaryCrane, Flickr

    • Image Credit: GARYCRANE, FLICKR
    • Under Your Car

      Last year, 20-year-old college student Yasir Afifi found this GPS tracking device underneath his car during a routine oil change. The device was affixed by magnet ''near the exhaust but futher in,'' according to Afifi's friend who turned to the online community Reddit to identify the device.

      According to Afifi, FBI agents approached him to retrieve the device days after its discovery. Despite being a U.S. citizen, he was apparently under suspicion due to his frequent travels to Egypt and the Middle East, and for being the son of a Muslim community leader.

      Photo: imgur via khaledthegypsy, Reddit 

    • Under Your Dash

      Conley Moret owns a car dealership that serves folks with bad or no credit. As part of his sales agreement, Moret equips his vehicles with GPS tracking devices. One of Moret's customers fell behind on their payments and tried to make off with the vehicle without ponying up the money owed. According to a press release from Rocky Mountain Tracking, Moret was able to use a Smart Tracker GPS device purchased from the company to retrieve the stolen vehicle.

      According to RMT's website, ''the [Smart Tracker] unit is most commonly mounted under the dash inside the vehicle,'' but they do sell internal and external waterproof mounts as well. Unlike some of the GPS tracking devices used by law enforcement, the Smart Tracker can be purchased online by anyone for the modest price of $175.

    • Pretty Much...Anywhere

      Rocky Mountain Tracking offers another unique GPS device called the Tracking Key. This unit ships with a USB connector which, when plugged into your PC, rebuilds all travel activity and presents it in custom reports and animated map routes. Another nifty feature is the built-in motion detector used to extend the life of the AAA batteries which power the unit.

      Best of all--or worst of all, depending on your point of view--the Tracking Key is water resistant and equipped with a powerful magnet, used to mount the unit. In other words: no fussy installation required!
  • Former President Clinton Disbarred
    • Former President Clinton Disbarred
    • What Gives You The Right? 

      There are certainly some legitimate reasons one might require a GPS tracking device. For example: parents keeping tabs on their teen drivers or rental car services staying on top of their fleet. But until the Supreme Court defines what crosses the line, we remain a bit suspicious.

      UPDATE: The Supreme Court ruled unanimously on Monday, Jan 23, 2012 that a warrant must be obtained by law enforcement in order to track a suspect via GPS device. GPS tracking was found to constitute a "search or seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment," therefore violating a suspect's rights when carried out without a proper search warrant.

    • Image Credit: MARK WILSON, GETTY
  • Former President Clinton Disbarred

The Third Circuit case involved a crime ring targeting Rite Aid pharmacies. The FBI used a"'slap-on" GPS tracking device to follow electrician Harry Katzin, who was suspected of cutting the stores' alarms before each heist. Ars Technica reported that while the FBI had the permission of the United States Attorney, they did not have a warrant. Katzin and two of his brothers where later arrested and charged with the robberies using evidence gathered via the tracking devices. This recent ruling means the primary evidence against the Katzin brothers will be inadmissible in court.

The Supreme Court ruled in the 2012 case of The United States v. Jones that such practices were unconstitutional, however that ruling didn't address whether a lower legal standard than probable cause could apply. In 2008 Antoine Jones was convicted of operating a cocaine ring based on evidence gathered via a GPS device that police placed on his Jeep. Evidence gathered by the device was thrown out of court and his conviction overturned. After three trials, Jones accepted a plea deal for 15 years with credit for time served.

The Third Circuit Court ruled that such devices fly in the face of the protections afforded citizens by the Fourth Amendment. Katzin and his accomplices will have the evidence against them thrown out of court. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation both released statements applauding the ruling.

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