Top NJ court says warrant is required to track cellphone location

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Reversing an earlier appellate court ruling, New Jersey’s top court today held that a warrant is required to track an individual’s cellphone location.

Under the state constitution, the New Jersey Supreme Court held in in unanimous 7-0 ruling, individuals have a reasonable expectation of privacy in such information, reports the Star-Ledger. Hence, law enforcement officials generally need to show probable cause and get a warrant. The warrant requirement will not apply retroactively, however.

“With increasing accuracy, cell phones can now trace our daily movements and disclose not only where individuals are located at a point in time but also which shops, doctors, religious services, and political events they go to, and with whom they choose to associate,” said Chief Judge Stuart Rabner in the court’s written opinion (PDF). “Yet people do not buy cell phones to serve as tracking devices or reasonably expect them to be used by the government in that way.”

At issue is the Monmouth County burglary case of Thomas Earls, who appealed his conviction after being sentenced to a seven-year prison term in 2007 (and was released on parole in 2009).

He pleaded guilty to burglary and theft after a trial judge said an emergency exception applied to the warrant requirement. An appellate panel ruled that a warrant was not required, but the case will now be remanded for a further appellate determination of whether an emergency exception applies to the warrant requirement upheld by the supreme court, reports the Asbury Park Press.

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