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Court Rules for Warrantless Use of Cell Phone Location Data

On Friday, in a blow to privacy activists, U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle ruled during a retrial that in a specific case, prosecutors did not infringe the law by collecting cell phone data of the location of an accused with court approval but without a warrant.

The judge held that the prosecutors had acted in good faith, and that courts in the past have permitted law enforcement officials to review historical cell-phone data through a court order, but without accompanying warrant, and that in such cases there was no reasonable expectation of privacy.

In the instant case, Antoine Jones was found guilty in January 2008 of conspiring to distribute cocaine. Law enforcement officers used a GPS device to track the movements of his car during the investigation.

However, in January 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that placing a GPS device on the car of Jones without a warrant violated the Fourth Amendment rights of protections against unreasonable search and seizure.

The Supreme Court ordered a retrial.



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During the retrial, prosecutors used the records of cell towers to which Jones’s cell phone had been connected to at the beginning and end of each call he made. The records were obtained through a court order made in 2005.

In March, Jones’s lawyers filed a motion arguing that obtaining the cell-phone data without a warrant violated the Fourth Amendment. However, Judge Huvelle noted that the court did not require to decide whether the state had violated the Fourth Amendment, as the nature of the law was unsettled in 2005, and agents had reason to believe that they were not committing any violation.

Possibly, this is not a broad interpretation of the law, but should be confined to the instant case, as it decided on an event that happened much before the Supreme Court spelled out the law in the matter.

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