Broward News

Florida Police Now Need a Warrant to Track Your Cell Phone Activity

Score one for your constitutional rights.

Until last week, it was pretty much open season in terms of the police keeping track of your cell phone records in the Sunshine State. But now, thanks to a court decision that started here in South Florida, law enforcement must pass through more legal hoops to snag your records. It's a landmark decision, especially in South Florida, where police are likely using unprecedented high-tech devices to track your data.

The decision was handed down by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals late last week. The case involved the 2012 conviction of Quartavious Davis in Miami. The defendant, a first-time offender, was handed a 162-year sentence for a string of robberies. The conviction was based entirely on 11,606 cell phone location records.

But when police were investigating Davis' heists, they didn't have to get a search warrant. They never do. Instead, police can show up before a magistrate and ask for a "D-order" for the documentation. Instead of probable cause, all law enforcement has to do is show that the records are "relevant and material" to the investigation.

If that sounds like police are able to just take a piss on your Fourth Amendment rights, you're absolutely spot-on. Last week, the appeals court decided that a full-on, judge-signed warrant would now be needed to obtain your cell records.

"The court's opinion is a resounding defense of the Fourth Amendment's continuing vitality in the digital age," Nathan Freed Wessler, an ACLU attorney who argued the case, said in a statement following the ruling.

"This opinion puts police on notice that when they want to enlist people's cell phones as tracking devices, they must get a warrant from a judge based on probable cause. The court soundly repudiates the government's argument that by merely using a cell phone, people somehow surrender their privacy rights."

Right now the decision only applies to Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. But it's incredibly important Sunshine State law enforcement is now constrained by this ruling. For some time now, police have been using Florida-made technology, the Stingray, to pinpoint suspects based on cell signal.

The practice is so secret that most law enforcement agencies won't even cop to whether they have the device or not. How exactly this decision will impact Stingray use remains to be seen, but it's another layer of legal protection when it comes to data collection by the state, so three cheers for democracy and freedom and the constitution.

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Kyle Swenson
Contact: Kyle Swenson