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Supreme Court Holds that Police Need a Warrant to Obtain Cell Phone Location Data

Earlier this month, the United States Supreme Court issued a written opinion in a robbery case requiring the court to determine whether the police should have obtained a warrant prior to obtaining the defendant’s cell phone location data. Ultimately, the court concluded that the level of intrusion in obtaining cell phone location data amounts to a “search” under the Fourth Amendment and should be supported by probable cause.

The Facts of the Case

The defendant was arrested after police obtained his cell phone number from another man who was arrested under suspicion of a string of burglaries. The police had no evidence other than this man’s word that the defendant was involved in the robberies.

Taking the defendant’s cell phone number, the police contacted the defendant’s cell carrier and obtained historical location data over a 127-day range. The information contained approximately 100 data points per day, for a total of nearly 13,000 data points. The historical location data showed the defendant around the area where the robberies occurred, corroborating the man’s statement that the defendant was involved in the crimes.

The defendant filed a motion to suppress the location data, as well as the police observations of that data. However, the lower courts denied the defendant’s motion, finding that he voluntarily provided the information to his cellular service provider and, as a result, he did not have an expectation of privacy with the information. The defendant appealed the case up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Court’s Opinion

The Court concluded that the police engaged in a “search” as defined by the Fourth Amendment when they obtained the defendant’s historical location data from his cellular service provider. The court began its analysis by stating that cellular phones have become a necessity in today’s culture, and noted that there are almost 400 million cellular phone accounts in the U.S. The Court went on to explain that most cellular phone owners would be surprised to learn that the government is able to track their every move with near precision, likening the historical location data to that which is provided by an ankle-bracelet GPS-monitoring device. Thus, the court concluded that the historical location data was the type of information that is protected under the Fourth Amendment.

Next, the Court went on to discuss whether the defendant forfeited that expectation of privacy by “sharing” his location with the cellular Service provider. The Court held that he did not, explaining that the defendant took no voluntary action to share his location other than by powering on the phone. Thus, the Court determined that the police were required, under the United States Constitution, to obtain a warrant prior to accessing the defendant’s historical location data.

Have You Been Subject to an Unreasonable Search?

The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures that are unsupported by probable cause or reasonable suspicion. If you have been subject to an unreasonable search, the evidence seized by police should not be used against you at trial. The dedicated New York criminal defense lawyers at the law firm of Tilem & Associates have decades of collective experience representing those facing serious New York felony charges. We are well-versed in all areas of New York criminal law, including search and seizure. To learn more, call 877-377-8666 to schedule a consultation with a dedicated New York criminal defense attorney today.

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