Obtaining Real-Time Cell-Site Locations in Texas without a Warrant


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Obtaining Real-Time Cell-Site Locations in Texas without a Warrant

Our smartphones have become such an integral part of our lives that when they ping on a cell phone tower, it is pretty solid evidence that we are in a specific locale. Naturally, this information can sometimes be incredibly useful for police investigations, but there are questions regarding the legalities of obtaining said information without a warrant.

Cell-Site Location Information

Cell-site location information (CSLI) refers to that call-based data gathered and held by third parties, such as cell phone companies, to provide their customers with better service (based on usage). Whenever a cell phone user takes to his or her phone to make a call, send a text, engage with an app, or otherwise use data, that usage pings off of the cell tower the phone interacts with, and the interaction is stored. This data storage is capable of producing a time-stamped map of the phone's whereabouts during any given period. The fact that we have all become so dependent on our phones and the exploding number of cell phone towers out there helps ensure that these readings are more accessible and more accurate than ever before.

Your Fourth Amendment Rights

The Fourth Amendment grants us protection from unreasonable search and seizure, which includes protecting our homes, papers, and possessions from warrantless searches. Without probable cause, the authorities cannot obtain warrants to execute such searches. In other words, the Fourth Amendment works as a legal safeguard that protects individual privacy from unwarranted governmental intrusions.

Carpenter vs. U.S. (2018)

The Supreme Court of the United States distinguishes real-time CSLI (used to track something unfolding) and historical CSLI (used to track a phone's location during a specific period). In Carpenter vs. U.S., the Court finds that a warrantless police request for 127 days of CSLI is a Fourth Amendment violation. In making this decision, the Court eschewed the Third-Party Doctrine, which states that an individual gives up the constitutional right to privacy when he or she shares specific information with a third party. They found that data stored in cell towers is not freely given to a third party in the same way that other information typically is. The Court did, however, note that this ruling related to historic CSLI specifically. In a recent case in Texas (Sims vs. State, 2019), the police apprehended murder suspects by obtaining three hours' worth of real-time CSLI without a warrant. How the Texas case squares with the Supreme Court's is still up for debate, but the fact that the Court's case limited itself specifically to historical CSLI may allow room for both judgments to coexist. Time will tell.

You Need an Experienced Killeen Criminal Defense Lawyer on Your Side

Brett Pritchard at The Law Office of Brett H. Pritchard in Killeen, Texas, is an experienced criminal defense lawyer committed to fighting for your constitutional rights and your most favorable case outcome. Help is available, so please do not hesitate to contact us online or call us at 254-501-4040 for more information today.

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