Supreme Court Turns Down Opportunity To Straighten Out Cell Site Location Information Mess

from the Third-Party-Doctrine-still-mostly-intact dept

Appeals court rulings on the cell site location information are literally all over the place. (Also figuratively.)

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.

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Comments on “Supreme Court Turns Down Opportunity To Straighten Out Cell Site Location Information Mess”

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Anonymous Coward says:

more libertarians needed

Maybe it’s about time to press for more libertarian-minded Supreme Court appointments, similar to the way that Clinton and Obama both appointed gay-rights activists (Kagan, in fact, has been widely accused of being a still-in-the-closet lesbian) that led to the Court’s revolutionary re-definition of marriage.

Perhaps the biggest problem is with the current liberal/conservative binary. Conservatives (as we currently define them) tend to be pro-police state, while the liberals’ focus on things like on gun bans and protecting women also tends to favor a heavier police response and suppression of individual rights.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: more libertarians needed

Many (if not most) of the recent Supreme Court nominees have flatly refused to answer questions that would tip their hand. Like it or not, the Supreme Court is all about ideology, and “stacking the deck” as they say. And since there are essentially no limits on the Supreme Court’s power (short of amending the Constitutional) it shouldn’t surprise us that partisan politics is the overriding factor in deciding who gets to sit on the court.

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: more libertarians needed

… the Supreme Court is all about ideology, and “stacking the deck” …

Politicians have been attempting to stack that deck at least as far back as FDR. This isn’t a new thing.

… it shouldn’t surprise us that partisan politics is the overriding factor in deciding who gets to sit on the court.

Especially when all mainstream media perpetuates it so strongly. You always hear the binary liberal vs. conservative spin when reading stories reporting on the court’s decisions. It’s almost like the law is a bit player in the drama.

Retired Officer (profile) says:

Third Party Doctrine Doesnt Stand.

Third party doctrine does not hold in most States that may either request or require that companies collect or maintain data (even meta-data) makes those companies to now be agents of the State. Imagine if Police could not get a warrant to search your house, and so the State/Police Hire, ask, persuade, or otherwise entice a third party (i.e. a private eye, or even a retired cop) to search your property and then turn over what ever they collect to be used in a subsequent investigation or prosecution. Government can not circumvent Constitutional rights by relying on a “3rd party” to violate your rights on behalf of Government.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Third Party Doctrine: the Law of the Land

The government already forces numerous types of 3rd parties to snitch. Banks are required to report a person’s yearly financial statistics to the IRS, as well as all transactions over (and in some cases under) the magical $10,000 threshold. And if they think a person might be “structuring” by intentionally breaking up large transactions into smaller pieces, then the Feds will seize the person’s bank account for this unprovable thought-crime.

And it’s not just the Feds that enforce ‘must-snitch’ laws. Local governments require schools, hospitals, and mental health counselors to report suspects of “child abuse/neglect” – however loosely they might define it.

Government-mandated snitching is just another form of warrantless search, perpetrated by outsourcing the work of police (who need warrants) to 3rd parties (who don’t need warrants).

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