Obtaining cell phone location data without a warrant constitutes a violation of the Fourth Amendment according to a ruling made yesterday by the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.
The court ruled that the government broke the law when it used cell phone location data to convict Quartavious Davis of several armed robberies in the Miami area, Motherboard reports. The data was obtained through a court order that did not require the government to show probable cause, rather than through a warrant.
“The obtaining of that data without a warrant is a Fourth Amendment violation,” Judge David Sentelle wrote in the court’s opinion.
In the opinion, Sentelle examined and thoroughly refuted several major arguments presented by the government in defense of the data collection.
The federal government claimed that cellphone location data was associated with lesser expectations of privacy than GPS data, which was declared to be protected under the Fourth Amendment by the Supreme Court decision in United States v. Jones. However, Sentelle stated that cellphone data is in fact more private, due to the fact that phones often remain on a person at all times, including private activities.
The government further tried to distance cellphone data from GPS data by claiming that the lower precision of location data from cell towers should make it obtainable without a warrant, but the court determined that the difference in precision was irrelevant. (RELATED: Facebook Amps Up Ad Targeting By Gathering Even More User Data)
“We do not doubt that there may be a difference in precision, but that is not to say that the difference in precision has constitutional significance,” Sentelle wrote.
Finally, the United States made the argument that making a call constitutes voluntarily giving up location data to the service provider, which would then in turn be within its rights to turn that information over to the government. The court rejected this argument as well, stating that a caller voluntarily gives up only the number dialed, not his or her location.
Although the court found that the other evidence in the case was still sufficient to uphold Davis’s conviction, the American Civil Liberties Union, which defended Davis, called the decision a victory for Fourth Amendment rights.
“This opinion puts police on notice that when they want to enlist people’s cell phones as tracking devices, they must get a warrant from a judge based on probable cause,” Nathan Freed Wessler, the ACLU attorney who argued the case, said in a statement issued by the ACLU.
Currently the ruling applies within the jurisdiction of the Eleventh Circuit but is expected to act as a major precedent in future cases.