Appeals Court ruling sets up SCOTUS battle over cellphone data

In a departure from other federal courts, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last week that governments must have a warrant in order to obtain cellphone data. The Court, in a 2-1 split decision, ruled that “the government’s warrantless procurement of the [cell site location information] was an unreasonable search in violation of Appellants’ Fourth Amendment rights.” Adding, “society recognizes an individual’s privacy interest in her movements over an extended time period as well as her movements in private spaces. The fact that a provider captures this information in its account records, without the subscriber’s involvement, does not extinguish the subscriber’s reasonable expectation of privacy.”

At issue in the case was the conviction of Aaron Graham and Eric Jordan for several offenses arising from a series of armed robberies. Graham and Jordan challenged the admission of evidence obtained without the proper warrants, however the Fourth Circuit Court said the evidence was collected “in good faith” and refused to overturn the convictions. Even though the convictions weren’t overturned, that the Fourth Circuit has gone against other Courts of Appeals could set-up a showdown at the Supreme Court. The Associated Press reports, “The American Civil Liberties Union said the decision by a three-judge panel of the [Fourth] Circuit Court of Appeals conflicts with two other federal appeals court rulings and increases the possibility that the US Supreme Court will take up the issue. Attorneys last week asked the Supreme Court to review an appeals court ruling in a Florida case that said search warrants are not required.”

An attorney for the ACLU called the ruling “a full-throated defense of Fourth Amendment privacy rights in the digital age.”

It will be interesting to see if the Supreme Court decides to hear the case, and what the high court will decide if they do hear the case. Reason.com reports, “There’s an issue, though, before the case heads up to the Supreme Court. This was a panel ruling, not the full court. In the 11th Circuit, a three-judge panel made the same decision as the 4th Circuit panel here—that cell phone location records are private and cell users have a reasonable expectation they’d be kept that way. But the full 11th Circuit Court of Appeals overruled the panel’s decision.”

If the full court in the Fourth Circuit upholds the decision of the 3-judge panel, then it seems obvious that the US Supreme Court will hear the case. However, I won’t hold my breath that the high court will rule “the government must secure a warrant or a court order for subscription account records.”

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