NJ Supreme Court Says Cops Need A Warrant To Obtain Cell Phone Location Data
from the another-small-victory dept
The case itself goes back to 2006, dealing with three warrantless location requests placed by police to T-Mobile. These “traces” were used to track down a suspected burglar. Once on trial, the defendant moved to suppress, which the court agreed with, stating he had a reasonable expectation to privacy in terms of his cell phone data. However, the evidence was still allowed under an “emergency aid” exception. On appeal, the court allowed him to reopen his challenge of the suppression ruling but its decision aligned itself with many others, stating he did not have a reasonable expectation to privacy for information “in plain view.” This specific challenge proceeded to the state Supreme Court, resulting in this ruling.
The ruling is somewhat state-specific. The court found that, historically, New Jersey’s Constitution afforded greater protection against warrantless searches than the Fourth Amendment. (This relies on previous rulings by NJ courts, as the wording is nearly identical.)
This Court has found that Article I, Paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution provides greater protection against unreasonable searches and seizures than the Fourth Amendment. When people make disclosures to phone companies and other providers to use their services, they are not promoting the release of personal information to others. Instead, they can reasonably expect that their personal information will remain private.
Splitting off further from the third party doctrine claim of reduced privacy expectations, the court offered this observation.
Viewed from the perspective of a reasonable expectation of privacy, what was problematic in 2006 is plainly invasive today. We are not able to draw a fine line across that spectrum and calculate a person’s legitimate expectation of privacy with mathematical certainty –- noting each slight forward advance in technology. Courts are not adept at that task. Instead, our focus belongs on the obvious: cell phones are not meant to serve as tracking devices to locate their owners wherever they may be. People buy cell phones to communicate with others, to use the Internet, and for a growing number of other reasons. But no one buys a cell phone to share detailed information about their whereabouts with the police. That was true in 2006 and is equally true today.
The court’s argues that the more specific the data is, the greater the need for a warrant, and so-called metadata is surprisingly specific, especially when location data is included. Many investigative and intelligence agencies have gathered a lot of phone records by pushing the narrative that cell phone users are complicit parties in the creation of this data and therefore, willingly ceding their expectation of privacy. The New Jersey court’s ruling is a strong rebuttal to that narrative.
This ruling will be effective moving forward and the court has decided not to apply the new standard retroactively. The new requirement goes into effect in 30 days, which may mean NJ telcos are in for a few last-minute fishing expeditions. The justices have kicked the case back to the appeals court and instructed it to apply the new ruling in determining whether its use of the “emergency aid” exception to allow the warrantless evidence was proper.
It may be a very venue-specific decision, but it’s another small step towards restoring the expectation of privacy to cell phone users and their data.