Cops Trace Cell Phones Without Warrants; Broward Case Calls for U.S. Supreme Court to Weigh In

This past May, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a lower court's decision and ruled that police did not violate Quartavious Davis’ Fourth Amendment rights preventing unreasonable search and seizure when they failed to get a warrant to use cell-phone records as the sole evidence to convict him in a string of armed robberies. He and accomplices robbed seven small businesses in Miami-Dade and Broward counties over two months in 2010.

Now Davis is appealing his case to the U.S. Supreme Court. The case has far-reaching implications in America because police aren’t required to obtain warrants to track a person's location with a cell phone.

Currently, Davis is serving a 1,941-month sentence — almost 162 years — in a Virginia federal prison without the possibility for parole. Davis was 18 years old at the time he committed the crimes. Before that, his criminal record was virtually spotless.

In the writ filed on July 30, Davis’ attorneys challenge the use of cell site location information (CSLI) for a particular cell phone without a warrant. Normally, all police have to do is go before a judge and request proper documentation to get this information. Establishing probable cause isn’t required. Police can simply claim the records they seek are relevant to their investigation.

Davis’ attorneys argue that a cell phone reveals not only a person’s location but his or her activity inside private spaces such as a home and therefore needs a warrant.

“The transcripts of a person’s movements, locations, and activities over the course of time contained in CSLI records is exceedingly sensitive and private,” Davis’ attorneys argue in the writ filed on July 30. “CSLI reveals a great sum of sensitive and private information about a person’s movements and activities in public and private spaces that, at least over the longer term, violates expectations of privacy.”

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the police’s method of attaching a global positioning device to a suspected drug smuggler’s car to track his movements without a warrant was unconstitutional.

With that case, police used a GPS device for 24 hours a day for four weeks. The robbery spree committed by Davis and his accomplices spanned three months and included 11,606 cell-phone-location records.

It’s not clear how the police obtained the records. According to Nathan Freed Wessler, an attorney with American Civil Liberties Union and one of Davis’ attorneys, CSLI data fall into two categories: historical and real-time. Police can obtain historical records from the cell provider (which they usually do with proper aforementioned legal documentation).

For real-time tracking, police can use secret devices called ISMI catchers that mimic cell towers. Often referred to as Stingrays, Kingfish, or Triggerfish, the use of these devices is a largely secret tactic used by law enforcement throughout the country to track people without a warrant.

Wessler tried to find out whether the Broward Sheriff’s Office uses such devices with a public records request, but the police refused to release that information by repeatedly citing the same reason in their reply letter.

“The disclosure of this information would reveal specific surveillance measures used by the BCSO, which may jeopardize present and future investigations, and personnel,” wrote BSO attorney Terrence Lynch. 

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David Minsky is U.S. Navy veteran and Tulane graduate who has experience reporting on stories from California, South Florida, and the Deep South. He also won some journalism awards. Email or tweet David with story tips and ideas.
Contact: David Minsky