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Florida Police Needed a Search Warrant to Track a Suspect’s Cell Site Location

In Florida, a person has a Constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. Sometimes this is obvious. A police officer cannot just search a person’s home or car without consent or a search warrant in most cases. However, it can also get complicated as old rules may be difficult to apply to newer technologies.

In a recent trafficking in cocaine case near Jacksonville, Florida, the case started as most drug cases do with a confidential information telling police that the defendant was moving large quantities of cocaine throughout the area. The informant indicated he had phone conversations on the suspect’s cell phone where large cocaine transactions were discussed. With this information, the police obtained a pen register and trap and trace device on the suspect’s phone with a court order. The pen register records the phone numbers dialed from that phone. The trap and trace device records the phone numbers of incoming calls to the phone.

The informant later told police that the suspect was going to make a large drug deal on a particular date. Without getting a court order, the police obtained information from the suspect’s cell phone provider that helped the police track the defendant’s real time location through his cell phone. Cell phones give off information as to its location that police can use to track a person with the cell phone. The police successfully located the suspect through his cell phone and stopped him. They found a kilogram of cocaine in his vehicle and arrested him for trafficking in cocaine.

The criminal defense lawyer filed a motion to suppress the evidence of the cocaine arguing that the police obtained the suspect’s private cell phone information from his cell phone provider without a proper court order. The state argued that a person does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in his/her cell phone signals to provide location information.

The court agreed with the criminal defense attorney. A person does have a privacy interest in the location signals emitted from his/her cell phone. A person may understand that a cell phone does relay location information, but a cell phone customer does not reasonably expect that information would be shared with the public or the police. As a result, it is reasonable for a cell phone customer to expect that his cell phone location information remain private, even when out in public and driving on public roads. Because a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy in the real time location signals sent by his/her cell phone, the police cannot obtain that information from the cell phone provider to track a suspect without a warrant. In this case, the police obtained that protected information without a warrant or other court order. Because the police found the suspect and the kilogram of cocaine in his vehicle as a result of the improperly obtained cell phone location information, the court suppressed the evidence of the cocaine, and the trafficking in cocaine charge was dismissed.