It is generally understood that, if you’re charged with, or suspected of, a crime, police may have access to your cell phone records. Those who are fans of Law & Order or crime novels, or just have an interest in the justice system, probably have an idea of how this works: the police suspect you of a crime, they get a warrant (perhaps dragging the judge out of bed in his pajamas to sign it) and they gather the information. If they fail to obtain a warrant first, the records are no longer admissible as evidence, and the guilty party may walk free of charges.
After a District Court ruling Wednesday, that may no longer be the case.
According to the NY Daily News, Quartavious Davis was the perpetrator of a string of robberies, some of them armed. Police tracked him through cell phone records, obtained through his mobile provider.
However, there was no warrant involved. Davis’ attorney argued that, for this reason, the records should be inadmissible, and a violation of Davis’ Fourth Amendment rights.
Pause here to understand that there are good reasons in place for protecting the public from warrantless searches. This isn’t a protection only for the guilty, but for the innocent as well, and if it is taken away, it is taken from everyone. Leave aside whether this 19-year-old deserved a 162-year prison sentence, or whether he might have been convicted on other evidence, and focus on the one fact that the court was to determine: is it legal for police to see your cell phone records without a warrant, and for those records to be presented as evidence against you in court?
According to The Verge, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday, overturning a previous ruling, that yes, indeed it is.
The court confirmed that as long as police show that there are ‘reasonable grounds to believe’ that the records are ‘relevant’ to an ongoing investigation, that is sufficient. No warrant needed.
Because another Appeals Court (the 5th Circuit) has made the opposite ruling, this may be a case seen before the Supreme Court in an upcoming session — but for now, at least one court has affirmed that police can access your ‘stored communications,’ including cell phone records that include location data, without a warrant.