Appeals court OKs warrantless tracking

A federal appeals court ruled on Tuesday that police do not need a warrant to track the location of a suspect’s phone.

The United States Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled that the Drug Enforcement Administration did not violate the constitutional rights of Melvin Skinner when it collected his phone’s GPS data.

{mosads}DEA agents tracked Skinner’s pay-as-you-go phone as he transported drugs between Arizona and Tennessee. They arrested him at a rest stop in Texas with a motor home filled with more than 1,100 pounds of marijuana.

Skinner’s lawyers argued that the police violated his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches by collecting his phone’s GPS data without first obtaining a warrant.

But the appeals court ruled that Skinner has no reasonable expectation of privacy for his cellphone’s location data.

“When criminals use modern technological devices to carry out criminal acts and to reduce the possibility of detection, they can hardly complain when the police take advantage of the inherent characteristics of those very devices to catch them,” Judge John Rogers wrote in his opinion for the panel.

The Supreme Court ruled earlier this year in United States v. Jones that planting a GPS tracking device on a suspect’s car qualifies as a search under the Fourth Amendment. 

But the appeals court distinguished Skinner’s case by saying that planting a GPS device is more of an invasion of privacy than merely collecting a phone’s location data. 

“No such physical intrusion occurred in Skinner’s case. Skinner himself obtained the cellphone for the purpose of communication, and that phone included the GPS technology used to track the phone’s whereabouts,” the court wrote.

Judge Eric Clay joined in the court’s opinion. Judge Bernice Donald concurred in part, but in a separate opinion, she argued that Skinner had a reasonable expectation that his cellphone’s GPS data would be kept private.

Catherine Crump, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, argued that collecting cellphone data is even more invasive than attaching a GPS device to a car because people carry their cellphones everywhere. 

“Contrary to the court’s alarming conclusion, Americans do not forfeit their privacy rights in their movements by choosing to carry a cellphone. We have a reasonable expectation of privacy in our movements, which can reveal a great deal about us,” she said in a statement. 

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) have introduced the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance (GPS) Act, which would require police to obtain a warrant before collecting location data from a person’s cellphone, laptop or other device. Committees in the House and Senate have yet to vote on the bills. 

Tags Jason Chaffetz Ron Wyden

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