Circuit Split Brewing Over Government Access to Cell Phone Location Data

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A split among the U.S. courts of appeals is taking shape over the threshold requirements for the government’s ability to obtain historical cell phone location data, in the wake of a July 30, 2013, ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

That court held that a U.S. district court must order a cell phone service provider to produce a subscriber’s cell site data when the government presents specific and articulable facts showing reasonable grounds to believe that the records are relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation.

The case began in 2010, when federal authorities in the Southern District of Texas filed applications for cell phone data in connection with three criminal investigations. The applications, submitted under § 2703(d) of the Stored Communications Act, requested 60 days of subscriber information and cell site data for specific cell phone numbers.

Section 2703 states that the government may require third-party service providers to turn over their subscribers’ cell phone data as long as the requisite burden is met. Generally speaking, authorities may obtain substantive communications, i.e., “content” records, without notice to the subscriber, but only based on probable cause as required by the Fourth Amendment. “Non-content” records, on the other hand, may be obtained on a lesser showing.

Thus, service providers may be compelled to turn over details of a subscriber’s call history, including numbers called, session times, and the duration of calls. To obtain non-content data, the government must offer “specific and articulable facts showing that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the . . . information sought [ is] relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation.” The statute provides that an order may be issued by any court of competent jurisdiction and shall be issued only if the government makes the required showing.

The magistrate reviewing the applications granted the government’s requests for subscriber information but denied the requests for cell site data. Although the government had met its burden under the statute, the magistrate held that compelled production of location data would constitute a warrantless search in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The district judge affirmed.

On appeal, the Fifth Circuit considered two issues. First, the court considered whether the Act requires the issuance of an order for non-content records when the government meets the “specific and articulable facts” standard or, alternatively, whether district courts may impose a higher burden. Second, the court considered whether the compelled production of cell site data constitutes a “search” under the Fourth Amendment.

On the first issue, the court held that an order must issue when the government meets the “specific and articulable facts” standard: the test is both a necessary and sufficient condition for an order under § 2703. The court resolved the tension between the statute’s permissive and mandatory terms by explaining that any court of competent jurisdiction may order the production of historical location data; but, if the government meets its burden under the statute, the court must issue an order compelling production of non-content data. Under such circumstances, district courts may not deny the government’s request or impose a warrant requirement.

The Fifth Circuit answered the second question by holding that compelled production of cell site data is not a “search” under the Fourth Amendment. The court’s decision rested on its conclusion that location data are simply the service provider’s business records, not data from a tracking device. As the court explained, the service provider stores and collects cell site data voluntarily for its own business purposes, not on behalf of the government. Additionally, the records concern commercial transactions to which the service provider is a party. Unlike content data, the subscriber’s location information is intended solely for the provider, who needs it to complete the subscriber’s calls.

The court explained further that subscribers do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in cell site data. Subscribers know full well that phone service depends on transmission of the caller’s location data. And even if that were not common knowledge, subscribers would still have no reasonable expectation of privacy in location data because the provider’s terms of service and privacy policies explain how the data are used, collected and stored. Armed with that knowledge, subscribers make informed choices about whether and how they use their cell phones.

The Fifth Circuit opinion is fascinating, especially because of the tension it creates with a Third Circuit case decided just weeks before the government filed its applications in Texas. Like the Fifth Circuit, the Third Circuit considered whether a court may deny an order for historical non-content records when the government makes the requisite showing under § 2703(d).

First, that court held that orders based on “specific and articulable facts” are not per se unconstitutional. But unlike the Fifth Circuit, the Third Circuit held that § 2703(d) establishes the conditions necessary, but not the conditions sufficient, for an order. In other words, courts can still require probable cause in limited circumstances. The court’s holding followed logically from its conclusion that, at least in some cases, cell phones are like tracking devices. And when historical cell site data is used to track a suspect’s physical movement in places where the suspect has a reasonable expectation of privacy – the home, for example – the Fourth Amendment may require a showing of probable cause. The Third Circuit held that, in such cases, district courts may require a warrant.

Disputes over government access to historical cell site data are far from over. If these cases are any indication, these rulings will hinge on whether courts deem cell phone location data to be more like third-party business records or more like data from a tracking device. Since a clear split among the circuit courts seems to be developing, it appears fairly likely that the U.S. Supreme Court will take up the issue soon.