Privacy Law

Cops need a warrant to track cellphone location data, a second state high court says


The top court in Massachusetts has ruled that police need a warrant to obtain cellphone location data to track a suspect for more than a brief time period.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court based its ruling on protections from unreasonable searches and seizures in the state constitution, report the Boston Globe and the Wall Street Journal Law Blog. How Appealing links to the opinion. The ruling is the second by a state supreme court to require a warrant, the Law Blog says. The New Jersey Supreme Court was the first.

The Massachusetts court ruled 5-2 in the case of Shabazz Augustine, who was arrested based on data showing his location when his girlfriend was killed. The court noted that police had obtained two weeks of data by persuading a court the information was relevant and material to an ongoing probe.

Because police obtained two weeks’ of data, a search warrant supported by probable cause was required, the court said. “The tracking of the defendant’s movements in the urban Boston area for two weeks was more than sufficient to intrude upon the defendant’s expectation of privacy” safeguarded the state constitution, the majority said.

The court said a warrant may not be needed in some cases when the cellphone data covered shorter time periods, but it wouldn’t decide the boundaries in the present case.

The opinion allows the prosecution to try to prove on remand that it had met the probable-cause standard when it sought the phone records. If the standard is met, the defendant’s motion to suppress should be denied, the court said.

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