Personal Freedom

11th Circuit Court of Appeals: Warrant Required for Cell Phone Location

Today the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals issued an opinion in the case of United States v. Quartavious Davis that may impact the policy landscape relative to fourth amendment application in the digital age.

The case was brought about after government agents obtained the cell phone location information of four people over a two month period in 2010 as part of a criminal investigation in Florida. The records were obtained without a warrant. Police received 11,606 location records of one of the suspects, Quartavious Davis, averaging 173 location points each day. Davis was convicted at trial based on this information, and appealed his ruling to the Eleventh Circuit Court. Today’s opinion is the first time a federal appeals court has ruled that a warrant is required to obtain cell phone location data.

“There is a reasonable privacy interest in being near the home of a lover, or a dispensary of medication, or a place of worship, or a house of ill repute,” the three-judge panel wrote in a unanimous opinion. “In short, we hold that cell site location information is within the subscriber’s reasonable expectation of privacy. The obtaining of that data without a warrant is a Fourth Amendment violation.” While the court’s ruling applies only to Florida, Georgia, and Alabama, it may very well be referenced and used in other court cases navigating through the judicial system.

Cell phone location tracking reveals significant insights into a person’s private life, as illustrated in this ACLU video. And while the Fourth Amendment protects against a person’s “effects,” the government is unsurprisingly slow to apply old language to new technologies. Today’s court ruling will help.

Despite today’s landmark ruling, other positive steps have been taken to curtail law enforcement’s ability to violate a person’s privacy. Here in Utah, House Bill 128 passed overwhelmingly earlier this year, and was signed into law by the Governor. The new law requires state and local government officials to obtain a warrant to obtain a person’s cell phone location information, except for a few excepting circumstances.

Additionally, the new law requires a warrant to obtain a cell phone’s stored or transmitted data, preventing the use of new technologies (or in person seizures) to access what is on an individual’s electronic device, which may include very sensitive, private information. Utah was the first (and currently only) state to pass these provisions together, showing that the beehive state is serious about 4th amendment principles.

Read the Eleventh Circuit Court’s ruling here.