Most people are aware that cell phones have GPS data that allows a cell phone provider to track and determine the location of the cell phone. This can be valuable information to police officers who are looking for a cell phone, or a suspect, at any given time. Do police officers need to get a search warrant to be permitted to obtain this GPS information from the cell phone provider?
In a recent case near Jacksonville, Florida, a drug deal went bad, and a shooting occurred. The victim contacted police and told them the suspect fled with a cell phone. The police officers contacted the provider for the cell phone and filled out a form claiming it was an emergency and they needed the real time location data for the cell phone. The police did not get a search warrant for the cell phone provider; they merely filled out the form requesting the information. The cell phone provider complied, and the police found the suspect within a couple of hours. When the police found the suspect, they also found the gun used in the shooting, and the suspect was arrested for murder, drug crimes and gun crimes.
The criminal defense lawyer filed a motion to suppress the seizure of the gun arguing that the police illegally searched the cell phone information which led to the suspect which led to the gun. The court agreed. A person does have a reasonable expectation of privacy in his/her real time cell phone information. As a result, the police need probable cause and generally need a search warrant to obtain this information. Because they did not get a search warrant here and relied on a form that is not approved and signed by a judge, the search was considered illegal.
There is a fairly common exception to a situation like this. If the police can establish exigent circumstances, i.e. there is an emergency and they need the information quickly, they could bypass the search warrant requirement. For instance, in this case, the prosecutor argued that the suspect was likely armed and dangerous so they needed to find him as quickly as possible. The court agreed with this argument, but in order to bypass the search warrant requirement, the state also would need to establish that they did not have time to get a search warrant. Since the state failed to establish how long it would take to get a search warrant and that extra time created or exacerbated an emergency situation, the state did not meet its burden under the exigent circumstances exception.