Florida Cops Are Free to Obtain Cell-Phone Records Without a Warrant, Appeals Court Rules

Court rules that phone records belong to cell-phone company, not the customer.EXPAND
Court rules that phone records belong to cell-phone company, not the customer.
via Shutterstock

Last June, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that police had violated South Florida resident Quartavious Davis' rights when they used his cell-phone information without obtaining a warrant. Davis had been convicted of and sentenced for a string of robberies, with his cell-phone records obtained from MetroPCS as the sole evidence used against him. That ruling was appealed by the government, and on Tuesday, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned it in a  9-2 vote.

This means that cops can go on checking your phone records, if they deem it necessary, without having to get a warrant to do so. Specifically, police need to show up before a magistrate and request the proper documentation to check cell-phone records. However, they don't have to prove probable cause, only claim that the records are somehow relevant to their investigation.

Opponents of this handling of cell-phone records have argued that it's a Fourth Amendment violation and applauded the court's original ruling. But according to the latest ruling, the judges say that the records obtained by police in the Davis investigation belonged to MetroPCS, whom the court recognizes as a third-party service provider — meaning the records belong to them and not to the customer. 

The ACLU believes the new ruling means someone using his cell phone automatically surrenders his right to privacy.

According to the 102-page ruling:

"The court reasoned: the cell user has knowledge that his cell phone must send a signal to a nearby cell tower in order to wirelessly connect his call; the signal only happens when a user makes or receives a call;  the cell user has knowledge that when he places or receives calls, he is transmitting signals through his cell phone to the nearest cell tower and thus to his service provider; the cell user thus is aware that he is conveying cell tower location information to the service provider and voluntarily does so when he uses his cell phone for calls."

The ruling goes on to say that Davis had no "subjective or objective reasonable expectation of privacy in MetroPCS's business records." Police used these records to pinpoint his location during a six-month armed robbery spree in Miami.

But the ruling could have far-reaching implications, meaning that, technically, police have the right to search any records stored a third-party.

For now, cops are free to search phone records without a warrant in the three states coved by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Florida, Georgia and Alabama. 

But it's of special importance in Florida, which has been targeted by the ACLU as a state that allows its police departments to act like the CIA

Last year, the ACLU sent public records requests to six state and local law enforcement agencies looking for information on the use of “cell site simulator” surveillance devices known as “Stingrays.”

The Stingray is a devise that allows police to target suspects based on their cell phone signals without a court's permission. The Sunrise Police Department responded to the ACLU's request by saying that the City of Sunrise "cannot and will not acknowledge whether any records responsive to the Request exist and, if any responsive records do exist, cannot and will not publicly disclose those records."

In a response letter, the ACLU said that refusing to even acknowledge whether records exist violates the Florida Public Records Act.

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