Florida court rules police need warrants to track cell phones
Woman Taking Photo With Cellphone On The Beach On Spring (Shutterstock)

The Florida Supreme Court ruled Thursday that police must get warrants to track criminal suspects by monitoring their cell phone location signals.

“Because cell phones are indispensable to so many people and are normally carried on one’s person, cell phone tracking can easily invade the right to privacy in one’s home or other private areas,” Chief Justice Jorge Labarga wrote in a 5-2 ruling.

The case comes as federal circuit and appeals courts around the country wrestle with cell phone privacy and potential violations of the Fourth Amendment protecting citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures of property by the government.

The ruling said Broward County sheriff’s deputies lacked probable cause to stop Shawn Tracey, who was accused of possession of more than 400 grams of cocaine. The court said investigators obtained a court order to capture telephone numbers of his calls, but “for some unexplained reason” the data included site locations.

When an informant tipped police Tracey was going to Cape Coral, on the Gulf coast, for a drug deal, they tracked his location and arrested him. The state argued his car could be watched on public roads, but Tracey’s attorney said the cell phone surveillance went too far.

“Regardless of Tracey’s location on public roads, the use of his cell site location information emanating from his cell phone in order to track him in real time was a search within the purview of the Fourth Amendment for which probable cause was required,” Labarga wrote.

Because probable cause did not support the search and no warrant had been issued, the evidence obtained could not be used in court, he added.

Justices Charles Canady and Ricky Polston dissented. Canady wrote that users are aware their phones send signals to cellular towers as they travel.

Benjamin Stevenson, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, called the ruling a big victory for privacy in Florida.

“Technology is changing all the time, but just because a technology you own is newer than the Constitution’s protections doesn’t mean it is exempt from them,” he said.

The ACLU said it found dozens of state and local police agencies covertly using devices known as “Stingrays,” which imitate cell towers and cause phones to send identifying information.

(Reporting by Bill Cotterell; Editing by David Adams and Andre Grenon)