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Cops Allowed to Track Suspects by Phone without Warrants
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The United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has ruled, 2-1, that police officers have the right to acquire location data from cellphones so they can track suspects without having warrants. The ruling comes from a case involving Melvin Skinner, who was recently convicted as a drug trafficker. Skinner took part in a drug operation that was country-wide and was organized by James Michael West.

Skinner was convicted of the following counts: conspiracy to distribute and possession with intent to distribute over 1,000 kilograms of marijuana, conspiracy to commit money laundering, aiding and abetting the attempt to distribute in excess of 100 kilograms of marijuana. During his appeals of his convictions, the attorneys for Skinner said that when police used the GPS data from his phone to find him and arrest him, it violated the Fourth Amendment because it was a warrantless search.


“There is no Fourth Amendment violation because Skinner did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the data given off by his voluntarily procured pay-as-you-go cell phone,” Judge John Rogers wrote for the majority opinion. “If a tool used to transport contraband gives off a signal that can be tracked for location, certainly the police can track the signal.”

Christopher S. Shearer was pulled over by police with $362,000 in cash in January of 2006 while on the way to deliver the money for West to his marijuana supplier. That supplier was Philip Apodaca in Tucson, Arizona. Apodaca used prepaid cellphones he purchased with fake names to setup drug trafficking. Officers were given permission in May and June of 2006 to intercept communication between two phones in West’s name. A Tennessee federal magistrate judge wrote an order that permitted the prosecuting attorney to install a trap and trace device, a pen register and receive location data from the phone’s call origin and end locations.

Police were able to intercept calls between West and Shearer to learn of a driver named ‘Big Foot,’ who is Skinner. They found out where Skinner was going to be and he was arrested by police at a truck stop in Abilene, Texas. He was operating a ‘motorhome filled with over 1,100 pounds of marijuana.’

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“Here, the monitoring of the location of the contraband-carrying vehicle as it crossed the country is no more of a comprehensively invasive search than if instead the car was identified in Arizona and then tracked visually and the search handed off from one local authority to another as the vehicles progressed,” Judge Rogers wrote. “That the officers were able to use less expensive and more efficient means to track the vehicles is only to their credit.”


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