The New Jersey Supreme Court recently issued a ruling that protects cellphone location data from open searches in criminal investigations. In State v. Earls, No. 068765, the court tackled this question, one of the many legal dilemmas that has cropped up due to the technology available today. Criminal lawyers in New Jersey report that the state Supreme Court’s decision has set a precedent for other privacy and cellphone data cases in the state.
In their 2006 investigation into a series of residential break-ins and burglaries in Middletown Township, local police obtained a court order to trace a stolen cellphone, which led them to a suspect at a bar in Asbury Park. The phone’s owner claimed that he had purchased the cellphone from his cousin, Thomas Earls, who had been involved in the burglaries, and was keeping the stolen goods in a storage unit rented by his girlfriend. After locating the stolen goods, police issued a warrant for Earls’ arrest. Three times during the search, investigating officers used tracking information provided by Earls’ cellphone provider, to finally locating Earls in a motel in Howell. He was placed under arrest for counts of burglary, theft, and receiving stolen property, all in the third degree, among other charges.
At trial, Earls and his criminal attorney argued that the cellphone location data provided to the police department by T-mobile was used illegally, because the officers did not first obtain a warrant to access that information. Because Earls and all New Jersey residents are granted a reasonable expectation of privacy under the state Constitution, the court ruled that a warrant was needed for police to use the cellphone tower data to locate Earls by his phone. But the court allowed the evidence to stand, citing emergency aid exceptions to the warrant requirement in these circumstances.
Earls’ case was moved to the state Supreme Court for further ruling on the right to privacy and cellphone security. The Supreme Court looked to both the United States Constitution and the state Constitution, citing especially the Fourth Amendment right “of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches.” In using the cellphone location data without a warrant, police violated Earls’ right to privacy.
According to criminal lawyers in New Jersey, the Constitution’s right to privacy becomes more sensitive when extended to handheld devices that track location, such as cellphones and GPS devices. In State v. Earls, the state Supreme Court determined that cellphones are not primarily used for tracking purposes, but for communication, and that phone owners may reasonably expect that the location data collected will be kept private, in accordance with their cellphone contract. Cellphone users do not expect that their location data will be shared with others, including law enforcement agencies.
The state Supreme Court’s ruling will be enforced in Earls’ case, and all cases going forward, thirty days from the date of their decision. All state and local police departments will be required to obtain warrants before seizing cellphone data and location information.