Growing issue: federal agents’ use of warrantless phone tracking

The United States Supreme Court weighed in last year with a ruling that police officers must obtain a warrant based upon probable cause in order to secretly attach tracking devices (GPS units) to suspects’ vehicles in drug crimes and other cases. Prior to the issuance of the Court’s ruling, lower federal courts had highly mixed views on the practice.

That investigatory tactic has now been supplanted — some commentators say upgraded — by authorities’ use of information obtained from cell phone companies that allows for locational tracking. A number of federal appeals cases are challenging that assumption, and Supreme Court watchers are wondering when the nation’s high court might step in with a clarifying ruling on that issue.

The Court seems in no hurry to do so, having recently rejected an appeal of a person convicted on a charge of marijuana possession. That individual, an alleged drug courier, was apprehended following authorities’ tracking of his mobile phone by pinging cell phone towers. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stated that a showing of probable cause was not required in the case, given that no search existed from the act of obtaining cell-site data. The lower appellate court’s ruling stated that it was “only to their credit” that police officers were able to employ an efficient means of tacking a suspect without physically installing a tracking device.

Many criminal law commentators feel otherwise. They note that the surreptitious nature of locational tracking, coupled with the government’s argument that warrants aren’t needed when phone records material to an ongoing investigation are sought, raises a fundamental privacy issue.

That view seems well founded, given the 320 million-plus wireless accounts that currently exist in the United States, a number that is higher than the nation’s population.

Source: Wirred, “Courts can’t agree on whether cops can track your cell whithout a warrant,” David Kravets, Jully 3, 2013