Cops & Data Collection: No Warrant Needed for Location Data
It seems the cops don’t need a warrant to know where you are. A federal appeals court handed down a ruling on Tuesday declaring that the public has no reasonable expectation of privacy when it comes to their cell phone location records. The ruling means that police don’t need a search warrant to get access to cell tower location records when investigating criminal cases. Why? According to the ruling this data belongs to a third party, the cell phone carrier.
The ruling in the case centered around Quartavious Davis, a Miami resident, who was convicted of robbery, possession of a firearm, and conspiracy in 2012. Investigators obtained Davis’ cell phone records, 11,606 in all, for 67 days from MetroPCS. Davis was eventually sentenced to 162 years in prison.
Davis’ case was appealed to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on the grounds that his Fourth Amendment rights were violated. The court disagreed in a 9-2 decision that the “government’s obtaining of a court order for the product of MetroPCS business records did not violate the Fourth Amendment.” The ruling states that even though the cell tower records concerned Davis, they did not belong to him. The records were created by a third party, in this case MetroPCS, and therefore Davis did not have a right to privacy around that information.
The court’s ruling also argued that the public understands that cell towers are used to “connect calls, document charges, and assist in legitimate law-enforcement investigations.” The public is aware that they can be tracked using their cell phones. The court argued that people have no reasonable right to expect privacy around those records. The ruling compared cell phone location records to store video surveillance tapes. “Those surveillance camera images show Davis at the precise location of the robbery, which is far more than MetroPCS’s cell tower location records show.”
Two judges dissented on the decision. They felt that the broad application of the “third-party doctrine” in the case could give the government grounds to greatly expand its searching capabilities without warrants in the future.