Tracking Your Cell Phone Without a Warrant

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Sep 6, 2012

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We’ve all seen in movies and TV shows a scene where a tech savvy character who doesn’t want to be found has enough wits to throw away their cell phone so they can avoid the government tracking devices.  Most of us know enough about cell phones to recognize that these scenes, although fiction, are actually closely based in fact – cell phones are easily tracked by any entity that has the technology and the desire to do so.

Recently, two federal courts across the country have added a new level to tracking cell phones that many of us may not have suspected – in a criminal trial, the State prosecutor may use geographical data obtained from cell phone tracking without first getting a warrant.

What this means is that police may track any person’s location using their cell phone without having to get a warrant in order to use evidence of their movements in a criminal case.   A warrant is typically required before a search or arrest because every person has a Constitutional right under the 4th Amendment that protects them from unlawful search and seizure.  Essentially, a warrant is required to prevent police from violating your rights as a private individual without first having reasonable cause to suspect you of a crime. 

The government still needs to obtain a warrant to install a GPS tracking device on a suspects car, however, it does not need one to track a suspects cell phone and use evidence of their location during trial.  The basis for these legal decisions was simple: American’s do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy when it comes to their cell phones’ location, and as such the government is not violating your Constitutional rights by tracking it if you are a suspect to a crime.

Although it is sometimes difficult to understand legal opinions from federal judges, the important thing to remember is that your cell phone can always be tracked, and any data obtained by tracking it can be used as evidence against you in a court of law.  You do not have a right to privacy when it comes to the location of your cell phone, and the police do not need a warrant to monitor your location using a phone’s GPS system.

If you have been accused of a crime, you have a right to a defense attorney.  You should always exercise this right, and consult a lawyer with any questions about your criminal case.

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