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U.S. Supreme Court Determines Police Need a Warrant to Track Cell Phone Location

Earlier this month, the United States Supreme Court issued a landmark opinion in a Fourth Amendment privacy case that will have a major effect on Massachusetts criminal investigations. The court’s holding was that police are required to obtain a warrant before they retrieve cell-phone tracking data from a cellular phone provider.

The Facts of the Case

The case related to a police investigation of a robbery that allegedly involved several people. The police made four arrests, and one of those men told police about several others who were also involved in the robbery. The man gave police the phone numbers of several of the alleged conspirators, including the defendant.

Police took the defendant’s cell phone number, and filed a request under the Stored Communications Act to obtain his cell phone records. That Act allows for cell providers to hand over customer information when the government can show that there is a “reasonable belief” that it is “relevant and material” to an ongoing investigation. Chief among the information sought was historical location data of where the defendant’s cell phone had been over the past 127 days. The information was given to police, and it provided them with 12,898 location points, all of which were around where the alleged robbery occurred.

The Defendant’s Motion to Suppress

The defendant filed a pre-trial motion to suppress the historical location information that was provided to the police by the defendant’s cell phone carrier. The defendant claimed that the police engaged in a “search” when obtaining his historical location data, and thus that search was required to be supported by probable cause. The trial court denied the motion and the defendant was convicted. He then appealed the issue all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Court’s Opinion

The Court concluded that the police had engaged in a search, as defined by decades of previous Supreme Court precedent. In so holding, the Court explained that this was an issue that implicated more than just this case, since there are over 396 million cell phones in the United States.

The Court explained that the historical location information provided “near-perfect surveillance” of a person, similar to that of an ankle monitor. That being the case, the Court was concerned with police being able to too-easily obtain this personal information, and held that it should be protected with the same force as other personal information. The Court also explained that the fact that the historical location data was kept by the cell phone provider in the course of its business did not defeat the defendant’s privacy interest. Similarly, the Court determined that the defendant had maintained an expectation of privacy in the information because he made no conscious action to provide the information to a third-party.

Have You Been Charged with a Massachusetts Crime?

If you have recently been arrested and charged with a serious Boston crime, you should contact the Law Office of Patrick J. Murphy to discuss your case and what options you have. It may be that the evidence the government seeks to use against you was illegally obtained, in which case it must be suppressed. Attorney Murphy has decades of experience defending clients in a wide range of criminal matters, including robbery, assault, and drug crimes. To learn more, and to speak with a dedicated Boston criminal defense attorney about your case today, call 617-367-0450.

More Blog Posts:

Massachusetts Court Reverses Indecent Assault Conviction Based on Insufficient Evidence, Boston Criminal Defense Lawyer Blog, published June 14, 2018

Massachusetts Court Discusses When Miranda Warnings Are Required in Recent Drug Trafficking Case, Boston Criminal Defense Lawyer Blog, published May 30, 2018