Associated Press: Federal appeals court rules authorities must get warrant to track cellphone tower data
The Associated Press reports on an 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in United States v. Quartavious Davis (D.C. Docket No. 1:10-cr-20896-JAL-2) (archive pdf) concerning the tracking of cellphone tower data by the government. The 11th Circuit’s Davis decision relied heavily on the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision in United States vs. Jones, where, in a unanimous decision (archive pdf), the court held that the placement of a global positioning satellite (GPS) technology device on a vehicle is a search under the Fourth Amendment. AP reports on Davis:
MIAMI — Investigators must obtain a search warrant from a judge in order to obtain cellphone tower tracking data that is widely used as evidence to show suspects were in the vicinity of a crime, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.
In the first ruling of its kind nationally, a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals determined people have an expectation of privacy in their movements and that the cell tower data was part of that. As such, obtaining the records without a search warrant is a violation of the Fourth Amendment’s ban on unreasonable searches and seizures, the judges ruled.
“While committing a crime is certainly not within a legitimate expectation of privacy, if the cell site location data could place him near those scenes, it could place him near any other scene,” the judges wrote. “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 ruling does not block investigators from obtaining the records that show which calls are routed through specific towers as well as which phones are nearby. It simply requires a higher legal showing of probable cause that a crime is or was being committed to obtain a search warrant rather than a less-strict court order. […]
The U.S. Supreme Court, while also not yet ruling on cellphone tower records, in 2012 decided that secretly attaching GPS devices to track suspects’ vehicles also constituted a search under the Fourth Amendment. The justices did not, however, decided that investigators must always obtain a search warrant to do that.
The 11th Circuit decision, which relied heavily on the GPS decision, applies for now only in Florida, Georgia and Alabama. The judges said other circuit courts had considered similar arguments, but not in a criminal case. Ultimately the issue will likely have to be resolved by the Supreme Court.