People in Virginia could have greater privacy protections after a U.S. Supreme Court decision requiring law enforcement agencies to obtain a warrant in order to access location information for a person’s cellphone. The June 2018 decision is based on the Fourth Amendment, protecting people’s rights to be free of warrantless search and seizure. There have been a variety of mixed rulings on how the Fourth Amendment applies to modern technologies, but experts say that this ruling could be among the most significant.
Cell site location information, or CSLI, is collected by wireless providers for their business purposes, and it can enable the carrier to retain extensive location and movement information for each cellphone. Police and prosecutors have made extensive use of CSLI in a number of cases in an attempt to gather information about a suspect. A federal law, the Stored Communications Act, enabled this practice, allowing police to access CSLI without a warrant on the basis of “reasonable grounds” that the information was “relevant and material” to an ongoing case.
One man was convicted of robbery partially on the basis of CSLI data as police followed his movements for 127 days. He challenged his conviction on Fourth Amendment grounds, but seemed to have little chance to prevail as previous decisions have refused to provide privacy protections for information turned over to a third party, namely the wireless provider in this case. However, given the extensive nature of CSLI and automatically collected data, the Supreme Court ruled that people have a reasonable expectation of privacy in that data.
This means that the decision in the case, a 5-4 ruling, provides significantly greater privacy protection from government surveillance by requiring that a warrant be obtained. Unlawful police evidence gathering practices can be an issue in a number of criminal cases, and a criminal defense attorney may be able to help defendants protect their constitutional rights from these types of violations.