Supreme Court Forbids Warrantless Use of Cell Site Location Information

joliet criminal attorneyThe Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right of citizens to be “secure” from “unreasonable searches and seizure,” and that this right can only be violated upon a showing of probable cause. While the text of the Fourth Amendment has not changed in almost 230 years, the application of its promises has been the topic of much debate and thousands of criminal cases. Our nation’s highest court recently authored the latest chapter in the story of the Fourth Amendment, ruling that law enforcement officers must get a warrant before obtaining cell site location information (CSLI).

What Is CSLI?

Cell site location information refers to the records created and maintained by cell phone service providers each time a cell phone connects to a cell tower. Your phone, obviously, connects to a tower every time you make a call, send a message, or access the internet using cell service, but such actions represent a very small percentage of CSLI. The cell phone in your pocket is actually connecting to a tower every few seconds, letting the tower know that it is nearby and whether it is ready to receive a call or text.

While these connections do not include private data such as the contents of message, they do include where you are—or more accurately, where your phone is—at any given time. Considering that our phones are never very far from us, tracking the history of a person’s CLSI effectively creates a map of everywhere that person has been.

The Case

The case before the Supreme Court involved a series of armed robberies in the city of Detroit. Law enforcement officials obtained the CLSI of a suspect without a warrant and used more than 13,000 data points to trace the man’s movements over a four-month period. The cell tower records placed the man in the vicinity of several of the robberies, and he was convicted on related charges.

At trial and on appeal, the defense claimed that using CLSI in this way was a violation of the Fourth Amendment and the man’s right to privacy. The prosecution maintained that there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in regard to cell records that do not include personal content. The U.S. Supreme Court heard the case earlier this year.

The Ruling

In a split ruling, the high court agreed with the defendant and overturned his conviction. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the court’s opinion, concluding that CLSI gives the government the ability to track a person’s movements in retrospect. The court held that obtaining CLSI constitutes a search as defined by the Fourth Amendment, and that a warrant supported by probable cause is necessary before such data can be acquired.

Contact Us for Help

If you or someone you love has been charged with a crime based on a questionable search, contact a Will County criminal defense attorney. Call 815-740-4025 to schedule a free consultation at the Law Office of Jack L. Zaremba today. We will review your case and help ensure that your rights are fully protected.

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