Last Friday, the Supreme Court ruled that police must obtain a warrant signed by a judge before they can get cell phone records to track the movements of individual customers. This is a further step in solidifying digital-age privacy protections. What this means is that police must now show probable cause to believe that a person is engaged in criminal activity before they can access his or her cell phone tracking data from a phone company. Prior to this ruling, no such probable cause showing was required at all. Police could access this information any time they wanted to, without any showing of probable cause or necessity. That practice changed last week with this ruling. Springfield Criminal Defense Attorney Adam Woody, along with Greene County Prosecutor Dan Patterson, were featured in a recent KOLR10 news story to discuss the case. Click this link to watch the story.
This Ruling Effects Everyone.
This ruling effects every American. Chief Justice Roberts noted in the majority opinion that, “There are 396 million cellphone service accounts in the United States—for a nation of 326 million people.”
Anyone who has watched crime shows knows that a cell phone sends signals to nearby antenna towers to connect with the telephone network. As the user travels, it pings on successive towers, and the cell phone companies keep records of the phone numbers routed through each tower. Cell phone companies use this data to sort out billing information, such as routing charges.
But police can use the data to reconstruct a person’s whereabouts over days, weeks, or months by mapping the towers used by a given phone number.
Breaking The Cell Phone Ankle Monitor.
By doing so, “[the Government] achieves near perfect surveillance, as if it had attached an ankle monitor to the phone’s user. Sprint Corporation and its competitors are not your typical witnesses. Unlike the nosy neighbor who keeps an eye on the comings and goings, they are ever alert, and their memory is nearly infallible.” The ruling held that law enforcement access of these records without a warrant invades the citizen’s reasonable expectation of privacy in his movements, in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
The ruling still allows police to get cell phone records without a warrant in emergency situations, such as the need to pursue a fleeing suspect, protecting individuals threatened with imminent harm, or preventing the imminent destruction of evidence.
It will be interesting to see how Southwest Missouri judges rule on cell phone data accessed without a warrant before the new Supreme Court rule was issued. Stay tuned to see if any major cases are impacted.