Appeals Court Says No On Fourth Amendment Rights Violation
Both federal and local law enforcement agencies regularly use cell-site records as evidence in court cases. In essence, cell-site data is simply using cellphone records to trace the exact cell tower that was used to make or receive a call, which then helps to determine a caller’s whereabouts. It’s kind of similar to your GPS being able to determine your location.
In cases like that of Timothy Carpenter and Timothy Sanders, Detroit brothers who were recently convicted of robbing cell phone stores in four cities across two states, the data helped federal prosecutors gain a conviction. But that conviction was hotly contested, on the grounds that using the brother’s cell phone records to convict them was a violation of their Constitutional protections from unreasonable search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment. These are also known as their Fourth Amendment Rights.
On appeal, the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagrees with the brothers that were convicted. The federal appeals court, when faced with the dilemma, found that no Fourth Amendment rights violation took place when the government used the brother’s cell-site records to determine their locations during the robberies. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals is the federal appellate court with jurisdiction over Michigan cases.
Carpenter and Sanders, who were convicted for aiding and abetting robberies affecting interstate commerce, were part of a group that conducted the hold-ups. Three other members of that same group, Juston Labaron Young, Earnest Roy Holt and Michael Anthony Green have all been found guilty of similar crimes, and sentenced to prison.
In this case, the FBI was able to access the information after their request was approved by a magistrate under the Stored Communications Act. But use of this type of information as evidence is coming under fire lately. Many experts have come forward recently, explaining that the use of a single tower to determine a person’s whereabouts has significant limitations.
Just last year, a three-judge panel in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta, ruled that a warrant was necessary for law enforcement to obtain a person’s private cell phone records. This stood in direct contrast to the previous decision, made the year before, where an appeals court ruled that a warrant was not necessary.
All in all, this is a highly debated Constitutional issue. Because there is difference between the Federal Circuit Courts, and because this issue is prevalent and important, it may ultimately end up being resolved by the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS).
So as technology develops and changes at the current rapid pace, it is to be expected that law enforcement will attempt to use it in solving crimes. However, experts will also likely continue to argue about the legality and effectiveness of that use. Which is why, if you are charged with a crime today, you need an experienced defense attorney with access to expert witnesses, whose knowledge can make all the difference in a case where the evidence is circumspect.