No search warrant needed to track cell phones

Posted at 5:57 PM, Jun 02, 2016

Every time you tweet, text or take a call on your cell phone, data about where you are is sent to your wireless provider.

So does the government have a right to those details? According to a ruling from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, they do. Law enforcement officials do not need to show probable cause and secure a warrant to get access to that location information according to the ruling. But the decision doesn't clear the way for you to be tracked at any time.

"Under Federal law, in order for police or prosecutors to get access to cell phone information, they need to get a court order from a judge,” said U.S. Attorney for Maryland, Rod Rosenstein. “And in order to do that, we need to make a showing that information is going to be relevant to a criminal investigation."

Rosenstein argued this case. He says the debate centers around the Fourth Amendment, and whether cell tower location data is protected under unreasonable searches and seizures. The Supreme Court has long held that information willingly turned over to a third party, like your wireless carrier, is not covered.

"Because basically you give up your stuff,” Law Professor Byron Warnken said. “And when you give up your stuff there's no violation for the government to take it."   

Privacy advocates maintain this cell phone data can reveal private details about your life, and say the third-party doctrine is outdated for how we live in the digital age.

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The ACLU released a statement saying in part: "The Fourth Circuit's decision is not the last word on this issue.  Other appellate courts will surely address these questions soon, and the Supreme Court may well need to weigh in."

"This fight is not gonna end soon, and there are legitimate arguments on both sides, which is why the fight's gonna continue," said Warnken.

For now, a court order clears the way for officers to trace the steps of people they think are connected to a crime, simply using the devices most of us keep in our pockets.

"For practical purposes, in many cases, that's not going to make a difference,” said Rosenstein. “The bottom line is that prosecutors are still required to get a judge's permission before they obtain this information."

This ruling was centered on a 2011 case from here in Baltimore. Cell phone location records helped police pin two men for a string of armed robberies. To secure the conviction, investigators got access to more than 200-days’ worth of data they used to track the pair's movements.

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