Supreme Court ruling protects privacy of cell phone location data

Cell phone users in Illinois and nationwide gained a landmark ruling from the Supreme Court of the United States regarding the privacy of their cell site location information. Privacy advocates view the 5-4 decision as a landmark ruling that updates the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures for the 21st century.

Telecom companies automatically collect and store location data gathered as cell phones connect with tower signals. Law enforcement agencies had been routinely accessing this data when investigating people suspected of crimes. The case that led to the decision involved a man who law enforcement tracked through his cell phone locations for 127 days. Their investigation resulted in his conviction for robbery. His defense team argued that the extensive and prolonged tracking of his every movement by law enforcement violated his Fourth Amendment rights.

Chief Justice John Roberts authored the majority opinion. He explained that the highly detailed information gathered about the locations of cell phone users formed an intimate portrait of their private lives. Because people cannot avoid creating these data profiles without ceasing to use cell phones altogether, the Supreme Court chose to extend Fourth Amendment protections around the data. Law enforcement must now obtain a search warrant to access the data by showing probable cause of criminal activity.

When a person facing criminal charges seeks legal counsel, an attorney might scrutinize the methods used by law enforcement to gather evidence in the case. A case evaluation by an attorney may offer insights that could be used in determining whether a plea agreement is appropriate. Any signs of unlawful searches and seizures or testimony from questionable informants might aid an attorney in the preparation of a criminal defense. Challenges to evidence may produce a reduction of charges or case dismissal.

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