United States v. Karo
468 U.S. 705, 104 S. Ct. 3296, 82 L. Ed.2d 530 (1984)

  • The DEA put a tracking device in a can of ether (used to make illegal drugs).
    • The police had obtained a warrant to put the tracking device in the can.
  • Karo picked up the ether from an informant, it was transported around for a while, and it eventually ended up in a house rented by Karo, Horton, and Harley.
    • As it was transported around, DEA followed it, and made visual observations of the people of the people who were moving it.
  • Based on the tracking device data and their visual observations, DEA got a warrant to search the house, where they found lots of drugs. Karo and others were arrested for drug possession.
    • It seems that the group had imported clothes soaked in cocaine, and was using the ether to extract the cocaine from the clothing.
  • At trial, Karo made a motion to suppress the evidence, claiming that the tracking device represented an illegal search of his house and was therefore a violation of the 4th Amendment.
  • The Trial Judge granted the motion to suppress and dismissed the charges. The prosecutor appealed.
    • The Trial Judge found that the installation of the tracking device was a violation of the 4th Amendment right to privacy.
  • The Appellate Court affirmed. The prosecutor appealed.
  • The US Supreme Court found that the use of the tracking device to get information from inside the home was a violation of the 4th Amendment.
    • The US Supreme Court found that the installation of the tracking device was not a search and seizure.
      • The ether was not in the possession of Karo when the tracking device was installed. It was also installed with the permission of the owner.
        • Is that fundamentally the same as obtaining evidence by having an informant wear a tape recorder to gather evidence?
      • Plus, just installing the device wasn’t a search at all. It was only the monitoring and tracking that could be considered a search.
    • However, the Court found that the 4th Amendment was still violated when the police used the tracking device to obtain information that could not have been obtained by visual surveillance.
      • The police used the tracking device to determine what was occurring inside of a house. That constituted a violation of the 4th Amendment because they didn’t have a legitimate probable cause and so the warrant was invalid.
        • “The monitoring of an electronic device such as a beeper is, of course, less intrusive than a full-scale search, but it does reveal a critical fact about the interior of the premises that the Government is extremely interested in knowing and that it could not have otherwise obtained without a warrant.”
          • It was unclear what the critical fact was. The police knew from their surveillance that the can entered the house. The tracking device told them that it was still in the house?
    • The Court found that the visual evidence that the police had obtained by following Karo and his cohorts around was enough probable cause to sustain the search the house, so therefore the motion to suppress was denied.
      • If the cops had followed the can and watched it go into the house, they could enter the house and it is not legally a search since they saw it go in.