Federal appeals court rules police can obtain cell tower records without search warrant News
Federal appeals court rules police can obtain cell tower records without search warrant

[JURIST] The US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] Tuesday that police may obtain historical cell phone tower location information from third-party businesses without a search warrant. Quartavius Davis was convicted for committing seven separate armed robberies between August and October 2010 in South Florida. The prosecutor presented evidence in trial of cell tower records form MetroPCS during those two months, showing that cell towers connecting Davis’ calls at the time of each robbery were near the locations of most of the robberies. The opinion, written by Circuit Judge Frank Hull, said there is a diminished expectation of privacy in certain records turned over to third parties, including cell tower locations, because a reasonable caller knows that his cell phone will send signals to nearby towers and voluntarily conveys this information to third parties. The court deemed this to be a voluntary action because phones do not transmit cell tower signals continuously but do so only when the user decides to make a call. Obtaining the company’s records did not violate his rights against a warrantless search because the defendant never owned or controlled the information; it was exclusively in MetroPCS’s possession. The court also found that disclosure of cell tower records serves a compelling government interest in apprehending criminals.

There has been much legal debate regarding cell phone searches [JURIST op-ed]. A judge for the 2nd Judicial District of Virginia [official website] ruled in November that police can force criminal suspects to unlock their cell phones [JURIST report] with a fingerprint scanner to allow officers to open and search them, but that officers may not compel suspects to give up their phone pass codes. Last June the US Supreme Court [official website] ruled that police officers must obtain a warrant [JURIST report] before searching a person’s cell phone data, even at the time of arrest. The court also held that while the police may not search the cell phone data, they may search the cell phone itself to make sure it cannot be used as a weapon.