Summer Of The 4th Amendment: Appeals Court Says Mobile Phone Location Is Protected Under 4th Amendment
from the secure-in-their-persons,-houses,-papers,-and-effects dept
It appears that the 4th Amendment is up for a bit of a revival this summer. Last week, we wrote about an important ruling in a Northern California district court saying that mobile phone location info — officially known as “Cell Site Location Info” or “CSLI” — was protected by the 4th Amendment, meaning the government couldn’t scoop it up without a warrant. The ruling was excellent and detailed, but we noted there would be inevitable appeals.
Now, in a similar case that had already been decided the other way, the 4th Circuit appeals court has overturned that ruling and agreed that mobile phone location info requires a warrant. This is another big victory for the 4th Amendment.
Appellants Aaron Graham and Eric Jordan appeal their convictions for several offenses arising from a series of armed robberies. Specifically, Appellants challenge the district court?s admission of testimonial and documentary evidence relating to cell site location information (?CSLI?) recorded by their cell phone service provider. We conclude that the government?s warrantless procurement of the CSLI was an unreasonable search in violation of Appellants? Fourth Amendment rights.
Unfortunately, the court says that it doesn’t matter in this case because of the “good faith” exception. We’ve discussed in the past the problems of the “good faith exception,” which basically says it’s okay to violate the 4th Amendment so long as law enforcement doesn’t know it’s violating the 4th Amendment. From a basic rights perspective, that seems ridiculous. But, at the very least, this ruling still should make it clear that going forward a warrant is necessary.
Information we collect when we provide you with Services includes when your wireless device is turned on, how your device is functioning, device signal strength, where it is located, what device you are using, what you have purchased with your device, how you are using it, and what sites you visit.
… First, the policy only states that Sprint/Nextel collects information about the phone?s location ? not that it discloses this information to the government or anyone else.
Second, studies have shown that users of electronic communications services often do not read or understand their providers? privacy policies.3 There is no evidence that Appellants here read or understood the Sprint/Nextel policy.
The court relies on a series of relatively recent Supreme Court decisions to make it clear that the 4th Amendment applies in this case:
Taken together, Karo, Kyllo, and the views expressed in Riley and the Jones concurrences support our conclusion that the government invades a reasonable expectation of privacy when it relies upon technology not in general use to discover the movements of an individual over an extended period of time. Cell phone tracking through inspection of CSLI is one such technology. It is possible that the CSLI for a particular cell phone is not very revealing at all because, for instance, the phone has been turned off or it has made few or no connections to the cellular network. But the government cannot know in advance of obtaining this information how revealing it will be or whether it will detail the cell phone user?s movements in private spaces…. We hold, therefore, that the government engages in a Fourth Amendment search when it seeks to examine historical CSLI pertaining to an extended time period like 14 or 221 days.
It’s a good ruling and it looks like the courts are building up a series of rulings on this issue that will inevitably reach the Supreme Court in the near future…