United States Supreme Court Issues Ruling Regarding Cell Phone Location Records, Potentially Affecting Customers in Massachusetts and Across the Nation

If you are like millions of other Americans, you probably have a cell phone in your hand or in your pocket right now. As any Massachusetts criminal defense attorney can tell you, there is a lot of data on your cellphone that, potentially, could be used against you in court if you are accused of a crime.

What you may not know is that all of the potentially incriminating data is not on your phone itself. Wireless carriers across the country log a time-stamped record of each cell site and sector each time a cellphone connects to a cell site, thereby providing a very detailed record of a user’s whereabouts.

It is important to note that this doesn’t just happen when the user is making a phone call or sending a text message; the average smart phone taps into a wireless network at least once a minute any time the signal is on, even if the phone is not being used for calling, texting, or searching the internet at that moment.

Facts of the Case

In a case recently considered by the nation’s highest court, the defendant was a man who was charged with multiple counts of robbery and of carrying a firearm while committing a federal crime. He filed a pretrial motion to suppress certain “cell-site data” that had been provided by two wireless cellular communication service providers, arguing that his Fourth Amendment rights had been violated because the prosecution obtained the data without a warrant supported by probable cause. The motion was denied, and the defendant was convicted on all but one count and sentenced to more than a hundred years of incarceration.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that the defendant lacked a reasonable expectation of privacy in the cell-site data. That court reasoned that, because users of cellular devices voluntarily convey cell-site data to their carriers in order to establish communication, the business records gathered during this process by the providers are not protected under the Fourth Amendment. The defendant appealed.

The United States Supreme Court’s Opinion

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case. The Court began by holding that the acquisition of the defendant’s cell-site records constituted a “search” for purposes of the Fourth Amendment. (The Fourth Amendment protects not only the defendant’s property but also his or her reasonable expectations of privacy.) The Court then acknowledged that the data at issue was maintained by a third party and, as such, did not fit “neatly” within existing case law. Although the government argued that the defendant had voluntarily shared his location information with the service providers, the Court found that this was not so given the “pervasive and insistent” nature of cellphones in today’s society and the fact that cellphone logs are created without any affirmative act by the user other than powering up his or her device.

Describing its decision as “narrow,” the Court held that the defendant had a legitimate privacy interest in records held by a third party and, insomuch as those records were obtained without a warrant that had to be supported by probable cause, the defendant’s conviction should be reversed. In so holding, the Court noted that the records at issue were acquired through the Stored Communications Act, which only required the government to show “reasonable grounds” to believe that the records were relevant and material to an ongoing investigation – not “probable cause.”

In conclusion, the Court stated that the government will usually need a warrant to access cell site data in future cases, although there could be an exigent circumstances exception in some cases.

Have a Question for an Experienced Cape Cod Criminal Defense Attorney

Criminal law is ever-evolving. If you or a loved one has been charged with a crime, it pays to consult an attorney who stays abreast of the latest developments. To speak to an experienced Cape Cod criminal defense attorney, call the Law Offices of John C. Manoog, III, at 888-262-6664 today. We handle cases in Plymouth, Hyannis, and all of the greater Cape Code area. Nos falamos Portugues!

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