Police do not need a warrant to determine a suspect’s location based off cell-site information, an appeals court has ruled.
In a 12-3 vote, the Fourth Circuit appeals court overturned a notable decision last year, arguing that the government can get the information from a third-party, which doesn’t violate a person’s Fourth Amendment right to protection against unwarranted searches and seizures.
The case will be a bump in the road for privacy advocates, who have for the past few years tried to clarify the use of location-based data collected from cell phones and GPS devices. The Supreme Court has yet to take up a case that would definitively rule on the matter.
In Tuesday’s ruling, Judge Diana Motz said obtaining cell-site location data doesn’t violated those protections because the data was already being shared with a person’s cell service provider — a requirement that helps the phone to function.
“Anyone who has stepped outside to ‘get a signal,’ or has warned a caller of a potential loss of service before entering an elevator, understands, on some level, that location matters,” Motz wrote.
“Whenever he expects his phone to work, he is permitting — indeed, requesting — his service provider to establish a connection between his phone and a nearby cell tower,” she said.
Not all the justices on the court agreed.
Judge James Wynn, who voted in the minority, said in his dissent that should a suspect have any “vague awareness that their location affects the number of ‘bars’ on their phone,” that person can’t know that such data is being collected and stored by the carrier.