The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit recently considered whether cell site location data is protected by the Fourth Amendment. On June 11, 2014, the court issued its decision in favor of privacy rights: the court held that cell site location information is within the cell phone subscriber’s reasonable expectation of privacy. If officers want the data, they must obtain the subscriber’s consent or a judicial warrant supported by probable cause.
The court’s decision in United States v. Davis pertained to Quartavius Davis, a federal defendant who was convicted in Florida on multiple counts of robbery, conspiracy, and possession of a firearm. For his crimes, Davis was sentenced to roughly 162 years in prison.
On appeal, Davis argued that his convictions and sentence should be reversed. Among other things, Davis argued that the trial court erred in denying his motion to suppress cell site location data, which the prosecution used to place Davis near the various crime scenes. Investigators were able to obtain the data without a probable-cause warrant. They did so under a provision of the Stored Communications Act, which states that a court may order production of non-content cell phone records based on reasonable grounds to believe the records are material to an ongoing criminal investigation. Davis objected that the evidence in his case should be suppressed because it was the product of a warrantless search conducted in violation of his constitutional rights.
The Eleventh Circuit agreed with Davis, holding that cell site location information is within the subscriber’s reasonable expectation of privacy. Speaking for the three-judge panel, Judge Sentelle discussed two distinct views of the interests subject to Fourth Amendment protection: property interests and privacy interests. The court determined that the privacy theory applied to Davis’ case. Because Davis had a reasonable expectation of privacy in his cell site location information, the government’s warrantless collection of that data violated Davis’ Fourth Amendment rights.
The Davis opinion is arguably the most protective of individual rights as compared to similar appellate decisions. In September 2010, the Third Circuit held that officers can obtain cell site data under the Stored Communications Act as long as they meet the reasonable-grounds standard. But the court also added that, in exceptional cases, a judge may impose a warrant requirement for data that can be used to track an individual’s movements in a private location, such as the home.
In July 2013, the Fifth Circuit issued a less-protective decision. In that case, the court held that individuals do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in non-content cell site data. Therefore, the court must order the production of such information when the government meets its burden of proof under the Stored Communications Act.
The Supreme Court has yet to decide the issue. But past Fourth Amendment cases suggest that no fewer than five sitting Justices favor the privacy theory that Judge Sentelle relied on. They are likely to agree that cell phone subscribers have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their cell location data.