SCOTUS: Police Now Need Search Warrant to Ping Cell Phones

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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — Cell phone towers everywhere can pinpoint your exact location at any given time. 

“People may not realize it, but at any given moment, they’re being tracked by their cellphones,” said Defense Attorney Adam Woody. 

And police, up until recently didn’t need a search warrant to get that information. Woody says that’s been an important tool in criminal investigations. 

“A cell phone can be used to check if that alibi checks out, or conversely to see if someone was near the scene of the crime,” Woody said. 

The Supreme Court last week ruled that before asking your cell phone provider for essentially every step you’ve taken, police need to prove probable cause to get a search warrant. 

 “It’s not an unexpected ruling,” said Greene County Prosecutor Dan Patterson. He says this decision won’t affect his office or the local criminal system that much; he says many agencies were already covering their bases.   

“For some time now, we have been obtaining that cell site location data from companies using search warrants. Because, typically,  the information you have to get – it rises to the level of probable cause,” he said.  

While five Justices voted yes, four voted against the decision. 

One argument is that when someone purchases a phone and signs up for services they’re already giving up privacy rights and the information doesn’t belong to the person anymore but to the service provider. 

“People now have a subjective reasonable expectation of privacy on their cell phones, that’s decided,” Woody said. “There shouldn’t be an argument whether a person has privacy on their phones,” 

Woody says this decision is a win for Fourth Amendment rights.

“The Supreme Court, over the past ten or 15 years has not been Fourth Amendment-friendly, has not been very defendant-friendly in Fourth Amendment issues, but with technology and phones that’s changing,” he said.  

He says this will serve as a precedent for future cases, and the more advancements in technology, the more Fourth Amendment, and privacy rights will be expanded in the law. 

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