Friday, March 2, 2012

Maryland district court addresses cell site location data, finds no Fourth Amendment issue

The Maryland federal district court recently held that obtaining cell site location data does not implicate the Fourth Amendment, and even if it did, obtaining such information without a warrant does not require suppression. (United States v. Graham, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 26954 (D. Md. 2012)). Of the two orders issued under the Stored Communications Act, one "authorized [221] days and 20,235 individual cell site location data points." 

The defendants "argue[d] that the privacy intrusions available through this type of technology are far reaching and unconstitutional - allowing the government to retroactively track or surveil a suspect through his cellular telephone, a device he likely carries with him at all hours of the day and to constitutionally protected places such as his home or church."

The government counters with four arguments: (1) defendants lack standing because the phones were registered in a fictitious name (read more about this issue here), (2) there is no expectation of privacy because the locations were "business records voluntarily conveyed to a third party," (3) the SCA requires a lower standard than probable cause, and (4) even if the defendants' Fourth Amendment rights were violated, suppression is not required.

With regard to standing, the court held, "[T]he real issue is whether the Defendants have a legitimate expectation of privacy in their location data captured by their cellular service providers, and not whether they have a legal or possessory interest in the property." Next, the court addressed the concurring opinion in Jones and the mosaic theory in Maynard, but ultimately found that "unless and until the Supreme Court affirmatively revisits the third-party doctrine, the law is that a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties." Also, even if the data was able to reveal when an individual is at home, that is obtainable by pen register under Smith v. Maryland.

Thus, the court held that the defendants did have standing despite the fictitious name, but there was no violation of the Fourth Amendment. Also, even if there was a violation, the good faith rule applies due to reliance on the SCA, and suppression is not necessary.


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