Supreme Court Turns Down Opportunity To Straighten Out Cell Site Location Information Mess
from the Third-Party-Doctrine-still-mostly-intact dept
What there isn’t is any agreement on whether a warrant should be required to obtain this information. Some courts have come to the conclusion that this information — broadcast by anyone with a cell phone, whether they realize it or not — falls under the Third Party Doctrine. Others feel historical data is obtainable without warrants but real-time tracking requires additional paperwork.
The Third Party Doctrine is in play in the US v. Davis case. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals reached the conclusion that there is no expectation of privacy in data collected by third parties (under the questionable assumption that cell site location info is given up “voluntarily” by cell phone users). The defendant, Quartavious Davis, appealed the appeals court’s en banc decision.
Had the Supreme Court picked this up, we might have been looking at a final decision on warrants and cell site location data in the near future. The Supreme Court’s Riley decision suggests there’s an inherent expectation of privacy in the contents of a cell phone. It’s not much of a stretch to believe the Supreme Court might find this expectation carries over to the massive amount of information generated by today’s cell phones, despite the final storage location of the auto-generated location data.
Unfortunately, it could now be years before we see this resolved. The Supreme Court has decided to pass on Davis’s appeal.
The nine justices turned away an appeal filed by a Florida man named Quartavious Davis, who was convicted of participating in a string of 2010 robberies in the Miami area and was sentenced to 1,941 months, almost 162 years, in prison without possibility of parole.
Davis challenged his convictions in part on the grounds that police did not seek a warrant when they asked his cellphone provider, MetroPCS Communications Inc, for location information that linked him to the seven different crime scenes between August and October 2010.
The likelihood remains that the Supreme Court will have to address this issue in the near future. There are simply too many contradictory opinions among the appeals courts to leave this undecided for much longer. Cases challenging the warrantless seizure of cell location data have been plentiful. And the nation’s courts seem more aware of law enforcement’s manipulation of outdated statutes and court decisions to dodge warrant requirements.
As has been noted by the Supreme Court itself, the Fourth Amendment is purposefully designed to make law enforcement’s job more difficult. It’s a check against abuse, not an inconvenience to be routed around whenever possible.