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Cellphone location searches and privacy protections, part 1

In this blog, we've been closely following issues involving the application in an online world of constitutional principles that protect against unreasonable searches and seizures. In our October 14 post, for example, we wrote about a case raising the issue of warrantless searches of the contents of cellphones. That case involved a warrantless search of a cellphone's call log following an arrest.

In this post, let's look at a related cell phone search issue: whether law enforcement agencies must get a search warrant before they are allowed to obtain information about a suspect's location from cellphone service providers.

The New Jersey Supreme Court addressed this issue last July in a case called State of New Jersey v. Earls.

The case arose out of a police investigation into a series of burglaries. Police traced a cellphone that had been taken from one of the homes and this eventually led them to a suspect.

But police did not seek a warrant to search the suspect. Instead, they went to T-Mobile, the suspect's cellphone service provider, and obtained data that enabled the police to track the suspect down. Using the location information from the provider, the police found the man in a motel room that also contained stolen property.

The New Jersey Supreme Court held unanimously that getting tracking information on a suspect directly from a cellphone provider without a warrant violated the state constitution. The specific section of the New Jersey Constitution that the court pointed to is Article I, paragraph 7. 

That section has similar wording, in many ways, to the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It provides protections against unreasonable searches and seizures and states that search warrants must be specific and supported by probable cause. 

It remains to be seen, however, how the issue of cell phone location searches will be decided around the country. In our next post, we will discuss that broader issue.

Source: Jurist, "New Jersey High Court Correctly Rules Cell Phone Locations Are Constitutoinally Protected," Annabelle Steinhacker and Rubin Simms, Oct. 21, 2013

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