Warrantless Cellphone Tracking Is Legal, Federal Court Rules
An interstate drug trafficker hauling a motorhome filled with marijuana isn’t the most sympathetic defendant. But a federal court’s declaration that Melvin Skinner pretty much should’ve known his pre-paid cellphone could be tracked via GPS — and therefore cops didn’t require a warrant to track him — has repercussions that privacy advocates say deserve your attention.
Even if you don’t drive around in recreational vehicles loaded down more than a thousand pounds of pot.
On Tuesday, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that law enforcement officials don’t need a warrant to track suspects via cellphones. Attorneys argued to overturn Skinner’s many convictions, citing that the GPS location information that led to the defendant’s arrest was obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment, which guards against unreasonable searches and seizures. This didn’t wash with the majority of judges over the case, who voted in a 2-1 ruling.
“When criminals use modern technological devices to carry out criminal acts and to reduce the possibility of detection, they can hardly complain when the police take advantage of the inherent characteristics of those very devices to catch them,” wrote Judge John Rogers in the majority opinion that will affect future cases in a huge chunk of the country.
Skinner was arrested in 2006, with 1,100 pounds of marijuana in the motorhome he was driving, after law enforcement officials tracked him via one of the pre-paid phones the drug ring purchased using false identities. Such “burner” phones are regularly discarded by criminals to avoid tracking. In this case however, officials obtained Skinner’s number from another member of the ring, and then a court order that required the cellphone company to disclose “cell site information, GPS real-time location, and ‘ping’ data” for Skinner’s phone.