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Appeals Court Hears Testimony on Police Tracing Cellphones

Updated on March 24, 2016

Alleged Robbers Want Their Convictions Overturned

The federal appeals court in Richmond recently heard testimony on whether police should be able to monitor cellphone use without a warrant.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit has jurisdiction over Maryland and Virginia.

The split of decisions among state and federal courts on whether police need warrants to track cellphone calls is a clear indication the issue is headed to the U.S. Supreme Court soon.

The case argued this week resulted from an appeal by two men convicted of armed robberies around Baltimore. Police tracked them down by tracing their cellphone calls through a cellphone tower without a warrant.

Police did not listen in on the cellphone conversations. They tracked the location of the cellphones when the calls were routed through cellular communications towers.

The two robbery suspects said their convictions should be overturned because police violated their Fourth Amendment rights to privacy by the warrantless searches of their cellphone use.

The judges asked how cellphone calls could be considered different from landline phones or digital banking transactions for purposes of privacy protection.

Defense attorney Meghan S. Skelton argued that tracking cellphone locations was the same as any other police surveillance technique that requires a warrant.

U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said tracking cellphone locations is not the same as listening in on conversations. Instead it involves merely tracing calls routed through wireless communications back to their source.

The appeals court ruled last August that extensive tracking of cellphone calls was unconstitutional because it could identify a person’s daily habits, which is private information. As a result, a warrant was required for anything more than a brief cellphone trace.

However, federal appeals courts in Florida and Louisiana have ruled that no warrants are needed.

Many States Allow Police to Trace Cellphone Calls Without Warrants

Alleged robbers want their convictions overturned, saying police tracked them down illegally by tracing their cellphone calls.
Alleged robbers want their convictions overturned, saying police tracked them down illegally by tracing their cellphone calls.

How Far Can Police Surveillance Go in a Wireless World?

Should police be able to trace people's cellphone calls without a warrant?

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