Warrantless Cell Phone Tracking Approved: Appeals Court

By Laura Spadanuta

An appeals court has ruled that law enforcement does not need a probable cause warrant to track a suspect using that suspect's own mobile phone GPS.

The case in point, the United States v. Skinner, dealt with a drug courier storing 1,100 pounds of marijuana in a camper. Authorities found the courier by tracking the suspect's mobile phone, according to Wired's Threat Level blog.

According to the article:

The decision, a big boost for the government’s surveillance powers, comes as prosecutors are shifting their focus to warrantless cell-tower location tracking of suspects in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling in January sharply limiting the use of GPS vehicle trackers. The Supreme Court found law enforcement should acquire probable-cause warrants from judges to affix GPS devices to vehicles and monitor their every move.

The court of appeals ruling comes a month after a congressional inquiry found that law enforcement made 1.3 million requests for cellphone data last year alone while seeking out subscriber information like text messages, location data and calling records.

The article points out that this is a separate issue from a recent GPS case decided by the Supreme Court, United States v. Jones, the court ruled that police do need a probable cause warrant before attaching a GPS device to a person's car, as explained in this USA Today article. However, five justices in that case stated that a warrant might also be needed when using a person's mobile phone GPS capabilities to track them.  In US v. Skinner, the appeals court obviously disagreed. Justice John M. Rogers wrote:

“Here, the monitoring of the location of the contraband-carrying vehicle as it crossed the country is no more of a comprehensively invasive search than if instead the car was identified in Arizona and then tracked visually and the search handed off from one local authority to another as the vehicles progressed. That the officers were able to use less expensive and more efficient means to track the vehicles is only to their credit."

Threat Level reports that since the Supreme Court Jones decision, law enforcement has turned more toward mobile phone GPS tracking.

photo by William Hook/flickr



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