Court rules warrant needed to track cell phone location

A federal appeals court panel ruled on Wednesday that a warrant is necessary for law enforcement to obtain a suspect’s cell phone location records from a telecommunications company, citing the Fourth Amendment.

Since a 1979 Supreme Court decision established the ‘third-party doctrine’, legal precedent had been set which said “that a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties,” (Smith v. Maryland).

The case decided on Wednesday concerns two Baltimore men who were suspected of committing a series of armed robberies. The duo were eventually convicted after their cellular location points were examined which showed their whereabouts at the time of the crimes.

The evidence in the appellant’s specific case was upheld by the court because the “government relied in good faith” of the third-party doctrine’s legitimacy at the time.

In the future however, specifically in the Fourth Circuit Court’s jurisdiction of Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, warrants will be required to obtain cell-tracking evidence.

The court explained in their ruling “that a provider captures this information . . . without the subscriber’s involvement, does not extinguish the subscriber’s reasonable expectation of privacy. Applying the third-party doctrine in this context would simply permit the government to convert an individual’s cell phone into a tracking device . . . and to do so without probable cause.”

The court went on to state in their opinion that, “cellphone users have an objectively reasonable expectation of privacy in this information.”

According to the ACLU, which filed an amicus brief in the case, Wednesday’s ruling contradicts two other recent appeals court decisions, which will likely cause the ‘third-party doctrine’ to be reviewed by the Supreme Court at some point in the near-future.

Despite the uncertainty of the government’s ability to obtain third-party information on individual U.S. citizens in the future, some civil rights advocates see the decision as a step in the right direction.

“Today’s opinion is a full-throated defense of Fourth Amendment privacy rights in the digital age,” said ACLU attorney Nathan Wessler.

Others like Judge Diana Motz, disagree with Mr. Wessler’s interpretation of the Constitution’s search and seizure protections.

“The government did not surreptitiously view, listen to, record, or in any other way engage in direct surveillance of Defendants to obtain this information,” Motz wrote in her dissenting opinion.

Should U.S. citizens be protected from government intrusion of our third-party records, or do we voluntarily forfeit our Constitutional privileges when contracting with private businesses? Now that most people’s confidential/sensitive information can be accessed digitally, an updated answer to that over-due question should be coming soon.

[The Guardian] [The Atlantic]