Judge: Cellphone Tracking Requires A Warrant

by Ross Todd, The Recorder

geralt/Creative Commons

geralt/Creative Commons

A federal judge in San Jose has raised the bar for law enforcement agencies to collect the type of cell-tower data that is routinely used to trace suspects’ whereabouts in criminal investigations.

U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh of the Northern District of California ruled that the Fourth Amendment applies to historical cell site information, meaning the government must obtain a search warrant to demand it from cellphone carriers.

With many smartphone applications constantly scanning the cellular network, Koh concluded, the data potentially yields such detailed information on individuals’ movements that its release without a warrant would violate their reasonable expectation of privacy.

“Cellphone users do not expect that law enforcement will be able to track their movements 24/7 for a sixty-day period simply because the users keep their cellphones turned on,” Koh wrote in a 46-page order issued Wednesday night.

Ropes & Gray’s Jonathan Schmidt, a former federal prosecutor in the Northern District, said Thursday that the ruling “could be a game changer.”

Koh “understands the technology and thoughtfully analyzes the cases in an area that law enforcement and the judiciary have been grappling with,” Schmidt said.

Koh looked to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling in United States v. Jones that extended monitoring using a GPS tracking device violated the Fourth Amendment, and its 2014 decision in Riley v. California, requiring a warrant to search the contents of an arrestee’s cellphone.

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