Cell Phones Need A Warrant, But Cell Site Location Info Doesn't? Appellants Challenge Government's Assertions

from the it's-time-to-start-disassembling-the-Third-Party-Doctrine dept

The Supreme Court's recent finding that warrantless cell phone searches are unconstitutional is already generating some pretty interesting arguments in ongoing cases. The government obviously wishes to mitigate the "damage" done by this decision by still doggedly pursuing data through warrantless methods.

In this particular case, the government is arguing that it has every right to access cell site location information (CSLI) without a warrant, claiming that the Riley decision solely pertains to the contents of cell phones. Obtaining CSLI without a warrant is still Constitutionally-dubious, however. One state court and a federal court have held that this information should only be obtained with a warrant. In the prior case, it was found that the state's Constitution provided more protection than the US Constitution and in the latter, the finding was very narrowly tailored to the case at hand, making it very difficult to apply to others cases, even under the same jurisdiction.

While the government makes the usual claims about third party data and warrant requirements being an undue burden, the appellant's reply takes those arguments apart.

The government is quite candid in its brief that it wishes to use cell phone location data to conduct dragnet surveillance without any individualized suspicion, or even a belief that a crime has occurred. It claims that CSLI is a simple building block at the beginning of an investigation that is the equivalent of chatting with bystanders. Riley refused to countenance this warrantless practice when it explained that location data qualifies as one of the “privacies of life” that the Fourth Amendment protects.
The appellant's reply further disassembles the government's assertion that grabbing cell location info is like "chatting with bystanders" in order to help "build an investigation." In one footnote, it asks why the government feels it shouldn't need a warrant for the cell location data when it obviously found a warrant necessary elsewhere, belying its "building an investigation" claim.
Here, this argument is demonstrably false. Appellants had already been arrested and indicted–and multiple search warrants had already been issued–before the government first sought the 18 U.S.C. § 2703(d) orders. In fact, some of the warrants were to search the cell phones.
In another, it attacks the ridiculousness of the Third Party Doctrine, which the government claims gives it the "right" to grab records without warrants and, in essence, turns the cell provider into nothing more than an impartial witness/bystander.
Contrary to the government’s assertion, nobody at Sprint witnessed Appellants’ movements, let alone any criminal activity. The government required Sprint to record his movements, using Sprint as the custodian. The technology itself needs only ephemeral and anonymous detection of location. Using this artefact of the technology as a retrospective homing beacon does not transform Sprint into a witness. Without the government’s action, no person would have ever known or seen the Appellants’ every move over the course of seven months.
If there's anything the court should pay particular attention to, it's this footnote. The government has successfully argued for years that so-called "business records" carry no expectation of privacy while hiding the fact that many of these records are maintained to meet government regulations. The government compels the production of records and then claims it should have broad, warrantless access to them because cell phone owners "voluntarily" generated these by using their phones. It ignores the fact that there's no way for customers to opt out of these collections, short of not using a phone. This ties into the Riley decision, in which the Supreme Court noted that having a cell phone isn't some sort of luxury enjoyed by a small percentage of the population but a necessity of modern life.



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Filed Under: 4th amendment, cell site location, doj, location info, riley, warrant


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 12 Aug 2014 @ 4:38pm

    Cell phones are not people...

    I never did understand the notion that if someone's cell phone was in a given area so were they?

    I guess this goes along with the assumption that everyone carries their own personal cell phone.

    My phone is often times in my wife's car (even if she's not driving it) - because i'm not one of those technology-addicted people who has to have his phone with him at all times. In fact, I think my wife has my phone more often than I do.

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