Supreme Court Rejects Police’s Mining Suspected Drug Dealer’s Cell Phone Location Information Without a Warrant

On the heels of this summer’s landmark privacy ruling in Riley v. California, the Florida Supreme Court issued an important ruling last month that strikes a blow not just for the accused but for the privacy of all Floridians. The court’s decision threw out certain cell-phone evidence against an accused drug dealer because the law enforcement officers did not have a warrant when they seized the information. Many legal authorities have hailed the ruling as an important step in the right direction regarding digital privacy.

Shawn Alvin Tracey was suspected of trafficking drugs after a confidential informant stated that Tracey had obtained a large quantity of cocaine in Broward County that he intended to sell in southwest Florida. Officers secured an order that permitted them to obtain a record of Tracey’s incoming and outgoing calls from his cell service provider. Without obtaining an additional warrant, the officers used the real-time site location information, which was also disclosed by the cell service provider, to track Tracey. Using this information, officers were able to modify their target search location and eventually arrested Tracey in an SUV in Broward County.

At trial, Tracey moved to suppress the evidence that the officers had found in the SUV, including a kilogram of cocaine and $23,000 in cash, arguing that it was the result of the illegal seizure of his cell phone location information. The trial court rejected that request, and Tracey was convicted. The 4th District Court of Appeal upheld that decision and Tracey’s conviction.

The Florida Supreme Court, however, came down differently. The majority of the court expressly rejected the argument, made in some cases, that a cell phone user implicitly consents to law enforcement’s seizing his or her wireless location information solely because users know or should be aware that cell phones give off location signals that the provider uses to route calls and that certain phone apps use in order to function. Just because the user permits an app to use his or her location does not mean that he or she is consenting to the use of his or her location information for any and all purposes.

The court also rejected the argument that users can choose to maintain their privacy by powering off their phones. “Requiring a cell phone user to turn off the cell phone just to assure privacy from governmental intrusion … places an unreasonable burden on the user,” given how necessary the devices have become for the lives of many. In fact, it was the ubiquitousness of modern cell phones that led the court to point out another problem with allowing such warrantless searches and seizures to stand. Since “cell phones are indispensable to so many people and are normally carried on one’s person, cell phone tracking can easily invade the right to privacy in one’s home or other private areas, a matter that … is clearly a Fourth Amendment violation,” the court pointed out.

In sum, allowing such a warrantless seizure as the police performed in Tracey’s case would open the door to many potential risks and harms with regard to the Constitution’s privacy protections, while on the other hand “it is not an insurmountable task for the government to obtain a warrant based on probable cause when such tracking is truly justified.”

Police use many creative and novel techniques to pursue suspects. Some of these methods are constitutional, but other times they cross the line. If you or a loved one has been accused of a crime, contact JG Winter Law. Our experienced and aggressive attorneys will work diligently to make sure that you get a fair trial by facing only the evidence the police secured by legal means.

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