Thursday, May 7, 2015
Court OKs Prosecution Use of Cell Tower Location
The en banc Eleventh Circuit ruled this week in United States v. Davis that a court order, pursuant to the Stored Communications Act, compelling the production of a telephone company's business records containing information as to cell tower locations (and linking the defendant's calls to those towers) did not violate the Fourth Amendment.
The ruling reverses an earlier panel decision, which held that the order violated the Fourth Amendment. The panel nevertheless affirmed the conviction, however, based on the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule.
The ruling tests traditional Fourth Amendment rules against technological advances--and their ability to reveal vast amounts of highly personal data. The court applied a traditional Fourth Amendment approach, but invited Congress to revisit the appropriate balance between technology and privacy in cases like this.
The defendant, Quartavious Davis, was charged with several counts for his role in a string of robberies. At Davis's trial, the prosecution introduced telephone records from Metro PCS, obtained through an earlier court order, showing the telephone numbers for each of Davis's calls and the number of the cell tower that connected each call. An officer-witness then connected the location of the cell towers with the addresses of the robberies, placing Davis near the robbery locations around the time of the robberies. (The evidence showed the location of the cell towers that connected Davis's calls, but not the precise location of Davis or his phone.) Davis was convicted and sentenced to 1,941 months in prison.
The court order for the records was based on the Stored Communications Act. The SCA provides that a federal or state governmental entity may require a telephone service provider to disclose "a record . . . pertaining to a subscriber to or a customer of such service (not including the contents of communications)" if "a court of competent jurisdiction" finds "specific and articulable facts showing that there are reasonable grounds to believe" that the records sought "are relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation." This does not require a showing of probable cause. Davis argued that the order violated the Fourth Amendment.
The Eleventh Circuit rejected Davis's arguments. The court wrote that the SCA actually provides greater privacy protections than a routinely issued subpoena to third parties for a wide variety of business records (credit card statements, bank statements, and the like). This, it said, was no different. It also wrote that Davis claimed no trespass, and that he had no reasonable expectation of privacy in the location of cell towers to which he voluntarily sent call signals, or in the business records of his third-party provider. The court thus concluded that there was no "search."
But even if there were a search, the court held that it was reasonable, balancing the government interests against Davis's expectations of privacy. It said that the government had compelling interests in investigating and preventing crimes, and that Davis had, at most, a diminished expectation of privacy.
Judges Martin and Jill Pryor dissented, arguing that technological advances, "which threaten to cause greater and greater intrusions into our private lives," threaten "to erode our constitutional protections."