An important decision was recently handed down by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals concerning law enforcement’s ability to track suspects through GPS. Previously, appeals courts have allowed this tracking to take place without a warrant, a trend that the majority on the Third Circuit panel put a stop to.

The case, U.S. v. Katzin, involves a series of pharmacy robberies the police suspected of being perpetrated by the Katzin brothers. To help crack the case, police decided to attach a GPS tracking device to the underside of one of the brother’s cars. This proved fruitful and later allowed police to create a map showing that the van visited each pharmacy that had been robbed at the time of each robbery.

At trial, the Katzins filed a motion to suppress the GPS evidence because it had been obtained without a warrant. The government argued that no warrant was needed for the GPS information, something the Third Circuit vehemently disagreed with. The Court said that absent some special circumstances that did not exist in this case, police officers would not be allowed to justify such an invasive GPS search based solely on reasonable suspicion in the future.

The case was seen as an important one not only because of the verdict, but because it was the first appellate court case to be decided since the Supreme Court issued it’s opinion in U.S. v. Jones last year. In that case, the Court found that sticking a GPS tracker to a suspect’s car counts as a search under the Fourth Amendment. However, the Supreme Court chose not to go further, instead staying silent with regard to the legality of the search and whether such a search required a warrant.

In several other parts of the country, including the Seventh, Eight and Ninth Circuits, cases have been decided before the U.S. v. Jones decision which said that warrantless GPS tracking was legal. Now that Katzin has been decided in light of the Jones case, many civil rights groups are hopeful that other circuits will decide their GPS tracking cases differently.

The Katzin decision has been heralded by groups like the ACLU and others for finally standing up for the privacy rights of criminal defendants. By requiring officers to first get a warrant based on probable cause, suspects can receive some important protection in the future from illegal and invasive tactics by police officers.

To read the full opinion, click here.