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Recent Supreme Court Case Protects Privacy of Cell Phone Location Data

In a recent United States Supreme Court opinion, the Court reversed the lower court’s ruling that denied a defendant’s motion to suppress the historical location data obtained by the police from the defendant’s cellular phone provider. The opinion is very important to those charged with an Arizona crime where the prosecution is planning on introducing evidence that was seized as a result of a questionable police search or seizure.

The Facts of the Case

The police were investigating a series of robberies. They arrested one man they believed to be involved and asked him who else was involved. The man provided the police with the defendant’s name and phone number.

Under the Stored Communications Act, the police were able to obtain the historical location data from the defendant’s cell phone. In order to obtain this information, the police needed only to show that there was a “reasonable probability” that the evidence was “relevant and material to an ongoing investigation.” This is a significantly easier burden for police to meet than the normal “probable cause” that police are generally required to have before conducting a search.

The cellular phone company provided the police with the historical location data, which gave police a windfall of almost 13,000 data points of where the defendant had been over the course of 127 days. The data points indicated that the defendant was in the area where the robberies occurred. He was subsequently arrested and charged.

The defendant filed a motion to suppress the historical location data based on the fact that it was obtained as a result of a search that was unsupported by probable cause. The trial court denied the defendant’s motion, explaining that by voluntarily sharing his location with the cellular service company he forfeited any expectation of privacy. The defendant appealed the case all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s denial of the defendant’s motion. First, the Court determined that the police’s conduct in obtaining the defendant’s historical location data was indeed a search under the Fourth Amendment. The Court based its decision on the prevalence of cell phones in the United States and the belief that most cell phone owners would not expect that this type of information would be available to law enforcement, absent a showing of probable cause.

The Court also held that the defendant did not forfeit any expectation of privacy by sharing his location with his cell service provider. The Court distinguished this case from others where the defendant voluntarily shared information with a third party, explaining that in this case the defendant did not perform any action other than turning his phone on. As a result, the Court concluded that the police needed a warrant to obtain the defendant’s cell phone’s historical location data and because they did not obtain one the defendant’s motion should be granted.

Have You Been Arrested and Charged for an Arizona Crime?

If you have been subject to an illegal search or seizure and are facing serious criminal consequences as a result of the evidence the police obtained, you should consult with a dedicated Arizona criminal defense attorney. Attorney James E. Novak has extensive experience representing those charged with serious crimes, and aggressively fights for the rights of his clients at every opportunity. To learn more about how Attorney Novak can help you, call 480-4131499 to schedule a free consultation today.

Additional Resources:

Other Articles of Interest from The Law Office of James Novak’s Award Winning Blog:

Warrant Based on Informant’s Tip Upheld by Arizona Court, Arizona DUI and Criminal Defense Attorney Blog, June 13, 2018

Plea Bargains in Arizona Criminal Cases, Arizona DUI and Criminal Defense Attorney Blog, June 26, 2018

Arizona Appellate Court Holds Police Had Reason to Order Passenger Back into Car and Conduct Search, Arizona DUI and Criminal Defense Attorney Blog, May 21, 2018

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