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An unavoidable issue: cellphone locations and search warrants

The U.S. Supreme Court has not yet clarified whether law enforcement agencies are allowed to track people's locations through their cellphones without a search warrant. The Court did rule in the 2011-12 term on the constitutionality of tracking a vehicle by affixing a GPS device.

But tracking people's locations by getting information from cellphone providers is another issue. In New Jersey and across the country, it affects the full gamut of criminal investigations, from white-collar crime to drug charges to all sorts of other investigations.

There are a few states, however, that have taken action to provide guidance on the issue. Last week, the state legislature in Maine passed a law that requires law enforcement officers to seek and obtain a search warrant from a judge before going after location data on someone from a cellphone service provider.

Maine is the second state in the nation to pass such a law. The other is Montana. And n the absence of federal guidelines on the subject, more state laws may well follow.

The Maine law on cellphone tracking passed overwhelmingly in both houses of the legislature. Though the governor vetoed the bill, the legislature easily overrode the veto.

The law does not only apply to cellphones. It also applies to other GPS-enabled devices.

At the federal level, the U.S. Justice Department seeks to draw a distinction between real-time tracking of cellphone location data and historical location data. But in practice, that may be a hard distinction to make.

After all, it can be all too easy for law enforcement to go too far in compiling vast stores of location information without a warrant.

Source: Slate, "Maine Enactxs Pioneering Law Prohibiting Warrantless Cellphone Tracking," Ryan Gallagher, July 10, 2013

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