The US Circuit Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled Tuesday that law enforcement can use cell phone data derived from cell phone use to establish an individual’s location with no warrant or probable cause.
The ruling was in United Stated v. Skinner, in which Melvin Skinner, an alleged drug trafficker, was tracked via his pre-paid cell phone and arrested by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) with more than 1,100 pounds of marijuana in his Texas motorhome.
The Defendant appealed and argued a violation of his Fourth Amendment right, which is intended to protect people from “unreasonable searches and seizures” without issuance of a warrant obtained due to probable cause. However the Sixth Circuit has ruled that the Fourth Amendment does not preclude law enforcement from obtaining individuals location via their cell phone.
“Skinner did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the data emanating from his cell phone that showed its location,” Judge John Rogers wrote in his opinion. The court considers cell phone use to be public, not private action. “Skinner himself obtained the cell phone for the purpose of communication, and that phone included the GPS technology used to track the phone’s whereabouts.” Skinner “did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the data given off by his voluntarily procured pay-as-you-go cell phone. If a tool used to transport contraband gives off a signal that can be tracked for location, certainly the police can track the signal.” He added.
In January 2012, the US Supreme Court ruled that law enforcement must obtain a warrant before secretly attaching a GPS tracking device to a suspect’s personal property, however, any US cell phone can now be tracked for location by law enforcement without probable cause or a warrant.