High court passes on closely watched cellphone privacy case

Getty Images

The Supreme Court on Monday declined to take up a closely watched case over whether police need a warrant to obtain records about people’s locations based on their cellphones, the latest chapter in an ongoing debate about how privacy laws apply to evolving technology.

The decision by the nation’s high court to pass on the case, Davis v USA, comes as a blow to privacy advocates who had pressed the justices to overturn an appeals court’s determination that a warrant is not necessary for the searches.

ADVERTISEMENT
As is typical, the Supreme Court did not offer any justification in declining to take up the case on Monday.

Earlier this year, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals declared that police did not violate the Constitution when they obtained 67 days' worth of records about the location of Quartavious Davis based on his cellphone calls. Based in part on those records, Davis was convicted earlier this year of seven armed robberies over the course of two months in 2010.

The records list the various cellphone towers that picked up the Florida man’s phone calls and served as a rough proxy for his location over the period of time surrounding the robberies.

Police obtained roughly 11,000 location records about Davis from his wireless service provider, MetroPCS, amounting to one every 8 minutes. 

In his opinion supporting the 9-2 decision in May, Judge Frank Hull compared the records to security camera footage, which “does not belong to Davis, even if it concerns him.”

“Davis has no subjective or objective reasonable expectation of privacy in MetroPCS’s business records showing the cell tower locations that wirelessly connected his calls at or near the time of six of the seven robberies," Hull wrote.

The decision from the full panel on the 11th Circuit came after a three-judge panel of the court initially sided with Davis in claiming that those cellphone location records were covered under his constitutional right to privacy. That decision was appealed to the full court.

Advocacy groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Constitution Project, had urged the Supreme Court to take up the case and reverse the appeals court's decision.