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Federal court agrees that cellphone data requires a warrant

Do you feel that your cellphone activity should be private? Would you be upset if law enforcement officials were tracking your data without a warrant?

Those are some of the questions that may have been posed in recent case that went before a federal appeals court. In the case, officials suspected a man was involved in several robberies. They were able to build a case against the man after obtaining location data from the suspect’s cellphone company. The data placed the man at the scene of the crimes.

Although prosecutors had gone to the court before requesting the data, they did not make a probable cause showing, as would be required in many other warrant applications. Instead, they based their request on the lower standard of relevance and materiality. The federal magistrate judge agreed that the location data would be relevant and material to their investigation, and granted their request.

As a criminal defense attorney knows, evidence that was obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures may be deemed inadmissible at trial. Without such evidence, prosecutors may then be unable to meet their burden of proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, resulting in a defendant’s acquittal.

In this case, prosecutors were allowed to use the evidence against the man, and he was convicted. The accused appealed that verdict. Although the conviction was not overturned on appeal, the federal appeals court did take issue with the standard applied to the cellphone location data. The court stated that the Fourth Amendment afforded an individual a reasonable expectation of privacy over such information. Consequently, law enforcement officials in that jurisdiction may be required to obtain a probable cause warrant for any future requests for cellphone location data.

Source: The New York Times, “A Good Ruling on Privacy,” June 12, 2014

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