Federal Appeals Court Strikes Down Warrantless Cellphone Tracking

By:  Joe Wolverton, II, J.D.
Federal Appeals Court Strikes Down Warrantless Cellphone Tracking

A federal court ruled for the first time that cell phone location data enjoys the same reasonable expectation of privacy under the Fourth Amendment as other information already included under that provision of the Bill of Rights.

On June 11 the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals held in the case of U.S. v. Davis that although the defendant, Quartavious Davis, will still be subject to nearly the entire 162-year sentence imposed by a lower court, the evidence against him that was obtained from a warrantless search of his cellphone location data was invalid as it violated the rights guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment.

“In short, we hold that cell site location information is within the subscriber's reasonable expectation of privacy. The obtaining of that data without a warrant is a Fourth Amendment violation,” the decision reads.

The information obtained by law enforcement from the cellular service provider includes a record of the calls made by the customer, the location of the cell tower that carried the call to or from the customer, and the direction of the customer’s location from the nearest cell tower.

Unlike decisions handed down in similar cases of warrantless cellphone tracking, the judges in this case reasoned that as “Davis has not voluntarily disclosed his cell site location information to the provider” that information was shielded from unwarranted seizure by the Fourth Amendment.

“Voluntary” is a key word in the 11th Circuit’s decision. In the case of Smith v. Maryland, the Supreme Court held that “a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties.”

The high court in that case ruled that if someone is talking to another person by way of a medium provided by a third-party (in the Smith case it was a telephone company), both parties must expect that the “intermediary” will have access to the content of the communication.

Regarding the telephone company, the court explained that when a person uses a telephone, he “voluntarily convey[s] numerical information to the telephone company and ‘expose[s]’ that information to its equipment in the ordinary course of business.”

The 11th Circuit did not agree. Quoting a prior ruling by the Third Circuit, the court in Davis held:

“When a cell phone user makes a call, the only information that is voluntarily and knowingly conveyed to the phone company is the number that is dialed, and there is no indication to the user that making that call will also locate the caller.” Even more persuasively, “when a cell phone user receives a call, he hasn’t voluntarily exposed anything at all.”

Furthermore, the 11th Circuit’s ruling pointed out that the data seized by law enforcement — particularly the location data — was very personal in nature and thus protected by the Fourth Amendment.

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