Cops gain access to phone location data

Supreme Court rejects robber appeal and adds to already confusing situation

Supreme Court Building

Police in some states can now access your phone location data without a warrant, following a Supreme Court decision not to hear the appeal of an armed robber.

Quartavious Davis, 23, was convicted of taking part in a string of robberies in the Miami area after police used cell tower data to link him to the sites where and when the crimes took place. They obtained 11,606 location records from MetroPCS – an average of 173 location points each day – and the data was instrumental in Davis' conviction.

Police grabbed the records under the 1986 Stored Communications Act, which states such records are available to the police if they have reasonable grounds to be suspicious of someone.

Davis' lawyer argued however that this kind of information needs to meet a standard of "probable cause" and so require a warrant to be accessed. The Florida courts disagreed and the case was appealed all the way up to the Supreme Court. However, the Court decided Monday not to hear the case.

That means Davis has run out of appeals and will face his full sentence of 161 years in prison for the robberies, despite being a first offender and not injuring any of his victims.

It is not the end of the case as it relates to cellphone data however. While the Fifth and Eleventh Courts of Appeals have decided that the right standard is "reasonable suspicion", earlier this year the Fourth Circuit decided that "probable cause" was needed.

As a result, many expected the Supreme Court to take up the case as a way of resolving the differences. Instead, it appears that the Court is waiting to see if there will be a full in banc review of the Fourth Circuit's full 11 judges. If the full court also decides that "probable cause" is the right standard, then the case is likely to head to the Supreme Court where, presumably, it will hear it.

Tell me more about Quartavious

Quartavious Davis was one of six men involved in the robberies, but the others cut plea deals and received sentences ranging from nine to 22 years. Davis, who says he has learning disabilities, claimed he wasn't offered a plea deal.

The case was one of the inspirations for the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance Act (GPS Act), introduced to Congress in January by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-UT). The legislation seeks to ban the seizure of geolocation data without a warrant.

"It's clear the courts won't resolve this question any time soon, so Congress needs to step up and make sure that Americans' cell phones aren't being used as warrantless government GPS trackers," Wyden said, following the Supreme Court's decision.

"My GPS Act with Congressman Chaffetz cuts through the mess of legal opinions and relies on the Fourth Amendment. There shouldn't be any question: The government needs to get a warrant whenever it wants to track Americans electronically, be it by phone, Stingray, or any other device." ®

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