A bipartisan bill pending in Congress aims to settle the question about whether police need warrants to use your cell phone or other GPS devices to track your location.

The Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance Act, introduced on Jan. 19, 2015, would require that police obtain a search warrant before getting location information from a cell service provider or other third parties, or before using a Stingray device, which acts like a cell tower to track a phone’s location.

Separate from the police provisions, the bill would make it a crime for people to use electronic devices to secretly track another person. It also prohibits companies from sharing customers’ locations unless they consent.

The bill is designed to protect the privacy of citizens from unreasonable intrusion both by police and from other citizens or companies. In terms of police investigations, absent a consent to search, the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution requires police to obtain a warrant in order to conduct a lawful search. As recent as 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that government use of a GPS device attached to someone’s car is a type of search. When police conduct a search without a warrant, the consequence is that the evidence obtained as a result of the illegal search may be kept out of evidence in court under a doctrine known as the Exclusionary Rule.

Unfortunately, as new technologies emerge, it usually takes time for the laws to catch up. The state of the law regarding use of GPS devices in surveillance is somewhat unsettled, and not every kind of scenario involving GPS devices has been addressed.

On the one hand, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Jones that police need a warrant to attach a GPS device to someone’s car to track their movements as part of an investigation. On the other hand, the decision in Jones doesn’t address the use of location services on someone’s cell phone or their own GPS device in their car.

In Pennsylvania, criminal defense lawyers are working with the additional complication of the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals decision in United States v. Katzin, No. 12-2548, Oct. 1, 2014, that said the Exclusionary Rule didn’t apply when the police had a good faith belief that they were allowed to use a GPS tracking device without a warrant.

If passed into law, the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance Act may resolve some of the uncertainty surrounding use of GPS enabled devices and make the rules that police must follow to lawfully obtain evidence more clearly defined. At the same, the proposed legislation would serve to advance one of the main tenants on which this great country was founded: that all citizens’ of this great nation should be free in their persons and in their homes from unreasonable searches and seizure.

If you’ve been charged with a crime in Philadelphia or the surrounding area, Fienman Defense can provide experienced and zealous advocacy on your behalf. Call us today at (215) 839-9529 for a free consultation to discuss your options.

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