PHILADELPHIA - A U.S. appeals court ruled Wednesday 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 state police investigating the multistate burglaries found tools, gloves and a ski mask during a search of electrician Harry Katzin's van. He said they were work tools and 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 Katzins, who have been free on bail, will now be given a trial date in Philadelphia.