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Using Cell Phone Locations Without Probable Cause

May 18, 2015 | Posted In Criminal Law |

Technology-related laws change almost as frequently as cell phone models are updated and maintaining privacy laws through every advance in cell phone and handheld device capabilities is a serious challenge. The laws that govern when location data and other cell-phone and tablet-related data can be used by the police tread a fine line between what is publicly accessible and what is covered under an individual’s right to privacy.  Sometimes, even the state and federal courts are making different calls in that regard.

United States v. Epstein

In a recent Trenton case, a federal judge ruled the government does not need to have probable cause in order to access a person’s location through his or her cell phone data collected by the cell service provider. This ruling was made in spite of several U.S. Supreme Court cases involving privacy issues with mobile phones and GPS tracking devices.

In United States v. Epstein, the U.S. District Judge of New Jersey shot down a motion brought by four rabbis to suppress the cell phone location-tracking data used in the case against them. The rabbis had been charged with kidnapping Orthodox Jewish husbands and coercing them to grant their wives religious divorces. As part of the evidence, the government pinpointed the cell towers from which the rabbis received and made calls and used this information to narrow down their locations at specific times.

The government obtained this information by court order from the rabbis’ cell phone providers and the judge found that this information was properly obtained, according to Section 2703(d) of the Stored Communications Act. This Act states that the government sets the standard of “reasonable grounds” for using data pertinent to a pending case or investigation.

U.S. Supreme Court Rulings

The rabbis argued that the U.S. Supreme Court found Section 2703(d) to be insufficient in the 2014 case of Riley v. California and the 2012 case of United States v. Jones.  In both instances, a higher standard was required for probable cause to obtain warrants for information stored on cell phones, including locations tracked through GPS devices.

However, the federal judge found that the circumstances in the 2014 and 2012 cases dealt with different issues of privacy and technology, and for the rabbis’ case, access to location data was covered under the statute. He “concluded that the government may constitutionally acquire subscriber information and historical cell site data...by providing specific and articulable facts showing that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the records sought are relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation.”

Keeping Up with the Times

At New Jersey law firm Helmer, Conley, and Kasselman, PA, we represent clients who have had their privacy rights violated or who have been accused of criminal activity based on cell phone or electronic data. As our technology changes, so do the laws regarding privacy and security and our New Jersey criminal attorneys are up-to-date on the latest changes that could affect your case. Contact an HCK attorney for a consultation on your case today.

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