Court: Police Need Warrant to Track Cell-Phone Location

The decision creates new safeguards against government snooping.

A Blackberry cell phone is seen at Fixx wireless on November 4, 2013 in Miami, Florida.
National Journal
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Brendan Sasso
June 11, 2014, 1:47 p.m.

For the first time, a fed­er­al court has ruled that po­lice need a war­rant to ob­tain cell-phone loc­a­tion in­form­a­tion.

The 11th Cir­cuit Court of Ap­peals ruled Wed­nes­day that po­lice vi­ol­ated a Flor­ida man’s Fourth Amend­ment rights by ob­tain­ing data about his loc­a­tion without a war­rant.

“There is a reas­on­able pri­vacy in­terest in be­ing near the home of a lov­er, or a dis­pens­ary of med­ic­a­tion, or a place of wor­ship, or a house of ill re­pute,” the three-judge pan­el wrote in a un­an­im­ous opin­ion.

Po­lice reg­u­larly ob­tain oth­er data, such as phone num­bers and call times, with only a sub­poena. But pri­vacy ad­voc­ates ar­gue that loc­a­tion data re­veals far more sens­it­ive in­form­a­tion about a per­son and should re­ceive stronger pro­tec­tion.

“The court’s opin­ion is a re­sound­ing de­fense of the Fourth Amend­ment’s con­tinu­ing vi­tal­ity in the di­git­al age,” said Nath­an Freed Wessler, an at­tor­ney for the Amer­ic­an Civil Liber­ties Uni­on.

He ar­gued that the de­cision “soundly re­pu­di­ates the gov­ern­ment’s ar­gu­ment that by merely us­ing a cell phone, people some­how sur­render their pri­vacy rights.”

The de­cision will bind po­lice in­vest­ig­a­tions only in Flor­ida, Geor­gia, and Alabama.

In a 2012 case, the Su­preme Court ruled that po­lice per­formed a “search” un­der the Fourth Amend­ment when they placed a GPS track­ing device on a sus­pect’s car. But the de­cision fo­cused on the ac­tion of pla­cing the device rather than the ubi­quit­ous track­ing of his move­ments.

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