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Cell Phone Location Considered Private, Confidential

March 15, 2014 | Posted In Criminal Law

A recent ruling from an appeals court in New Jersey reiterates the expectation that cell phone users have to privacy when it comes to location data and GPS tracking capabilities, criminal lawyers in New Jersey report. According to the appellate court’s decision, a local man’s constitutional rights to privacy were violated when police used his phone’s GPS signal to track down his location. The judges on the panel said that the officers’ failure to obtain a warrant before using the cell phone data went against confidentiality laws and the man’s reasonable expectation to privacy in the use of his personal phone. 

In 2005, local police were investigating a string of burglaries, and received a tip that suspect Thomas Earls was keeping stolen goods in a storage facility. They authorized a search of the place through his girlfriend, who co-signed the lease on the space with Earls, and found electronics, jewelry, and other valuable goods that had been reported stolen from several homes in the area. Police put out a warrant for Earls’ arrest, but then heard through a third party that Earls had threatened his girlfriend for letting police search the storage unit. The search escalated, and police officers asked T-Mobile, Earls’ cell phone provider, to track his location through the device. Earls was arrested after T-Mobile located the phone at a local motel, and sentenced to 7 years in jail. 

As the appellate court noted, technology has advanced so far in recent years that cell phone providers are able to track signals sent by a person’s phone every 7 seconds, and locate that device relative to the nearest cell phone tower. Many cell phone users know that their device comes with GPS tracking capability, but they may not be aware to what extent their location can be determined, and “reasonably do not expect law enforcement to convert their phones into precise, possibly continuous tracking tools,” the judges’ decision reads. 

In New Jersey, law enforcement officials are granted an emergency-aid exception for situations that would normally require them to obtain a warrant. However, the appellate court ruled that the emergency-aid exception was not applicable in this case, as the officers were not responding to a 911 call, or any witnessed emergency situation. Although Earls’ girlfriend had, at one point, filed a domestic violence complaint against him, the judges ruled that this was insufficient in proving an immediate emergency, because the girlfriend was not currently in danger. 

In State v. Earls, 214 N.J. 524, the appeals court noted that the officers had sufficient time to obtain a warrant before going to T-Mobile with their request, and that in failing to do so, they violated Earls’ right to privacy in his cell phone usage under the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, as well as the New Jersey constitution. 

New Jersey criminal and appellate attorneys at Helmer, Conley, and Kasselman, PA, say that Earls’ case highlights the importance of knowing your rights, especially those in regards to changing technologies and devices. With the use of cell phones becoming more and more prevalent in our society, protecting your privacy has become even more important. Contact an HCK lawyer today if you think your rights have been violated. 

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