- Judge Declares Law Governing Warrantless Cellphone Tracking Unconstitutional (Wall Street Journal, Nov. 16, 2011):
In a succinct one-page ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Lynn N. Hughes of the Southern District of Texas declared that the law authorizing the government to obtain cellphone records without a search warrant was unconstitutional.
“The records would show the date, time, called number, and location of the telephone when the call was made,” Judge Hughes wrote in the decision, dated Nov. 11. “These data are constitutionally protected from this intrusion.”
Judge Hughes’ decision comes as the U.S. government is facing increasing judicial challenges to its practice of obtaining information about the location of individuals without a search warrant. Last week, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case where the government placed a GPS tracking device under a vehicle and monitored the driver’s movements for a month without a search warrant.
During the argument, Chief Justice John Roberts said to Michael Dreeben, deputy solicitor general of the Justice Department: “If you win this case then there is nothing to prevent the police or the government from monitoring 24 hours a day the public movement of every citizen of the United States.” The Justice Department argues that people have no expectation of privacy on public roads.
Cellphone records are governed by the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, a 1986 law that permits law enforcement officers to obtain certain digital records – such as some e-mail and cellphone records – without a search warrant. A coalition of technology companies—including Google Inc., Microsoft Corp. and AT&T Corp.—is lobbying Congress to update the law to require search warrants in more digital investigations.
At the same time, judges in lower courts have been questioning the constitutionality of the law, which only requires officers to show “specific and articulable facts” the electronic records sought are “relevant and material” to an ongoing investigation. For physical searches of a person’s home, the government is required to show probable cause that a crime was committed and obtain a search warrant.
Since 2005, more than a dozen magistrate judges have written opinions denying applications for court orders to track cellphones without search warrants. The nation’s roughly 500 magistrate judges handle applications for search warrants and other types of electronic surveillance in federal courts.
Of course, some have upheld warrantless searches. Last week, U.S. District Court Judge Liam O’Grady ruled that the government could obtain data from the Twitter accounts of three WikiLeaks without a search warrant.
Last year, Magistrate Judge Stephen Smith of U.S. District Court in the Southern District of Texas issued an opinion denying the government access to 60 days worth of information about a cellphone subscriber’s location and phone calls, without a search warrant.
Magistrate Judge Smith wrote that although cellphone tracking wasn’t envisioned by the writers of the Constitution, it had become so precise and pervasive that “for a cellphone user born in 1984, however, it is now conceivable that every movement of his adult life can be imperceptibly captured, compiled, and retrieved from a digital dossier somewhere in a computer cloud. Now as then, the Fourth Amendment remains our polestar.”
The government appealed, saying that the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures, does not apply because “a customer has no privacy interest in business records held by a cell phone provider, as they are not the customer’s private papers.” The government also challenged Judge Smith’s description of the accuracy of location tracking as “inaccurate or misleading,” and submitted an affidavit from cellular provider MetroPCS Wireless Inc. stating that the average coverage radius of its cellular towers was about “one or two miles.”
The district court ruling was short, but declarative. It affirmed Magistrate Judge Smith’s decision on constitutional grounds. “When the government requests records from cellular services, data disclosing the location of the telephone at the time of particular calls may be acquired only by a warrant issued on probable cause,” Judge Hughes wrote. “The standard under the [existing law] is below that required by the Constitution.”