Sixth Circuit says cell phone GPS data can be used to track criminals

Sixth Circuit says cell phone GPS data can be used to track criminals

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The Sixth Circuit recently ruled that using GPS data to track the owner of a pay-as-you-go cell phone is constitutional and much the same as using dogs to hunt for a fugitive.

In the case of U.S. v. Skinner, the defendant used a pre-paid cell phone obtained by providing false identity information (also known as a “burner“) to communicate with co-conspirators as he brought a motor home filled with marijuana from Arizona from Tennessee.

Agents discovered the cell phone number that the defendant was using and obtained a court order requiring the cell phone company to disclose location information of the phone to the agents. The government used the location information to track the car for three days, eventually catching up to the car at a rest stop in Texas. Local police then brought out a dog to sniff for marijuana which resulted in the dog finding 1,100 pounds of pot.

Skinner was ultimately arrested and charged with various drug-related crimes, including possession with the intent to distribute and conspiracy to commit money laundering. He was convicted on all counts and sentenced to more than 19 years in prison. Skinner appealed, claiming law enforcement’s use of GPS data from his cell phone was a warrantless search in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights.

The Sixth Circuit disagreed, upholding the conviction of Skinner, saying, “The law cannot be that a criminal is entitled to rely on the expected untrackability of his tools.” Judge John Rogers wrote, “Otherwise, dogs could not be used to track a fugitive if the fugitive did not know that the dog hounds had his scent.”

Rogers noted that criminals often use pay-as-you-go phones, presumably because they are more difficult to trace. "When criminals use modern technological devices to carry out criminal acts and to reduce the possibility of detection, they can hardly complain when the police take advantage of the inherent characteristics of those very devices to catch them,” Rogers wrote. The majority opinion concluded by saying that the defendant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy regarding the location broadcast by his cell phone.  

To read the full opinion, click here.

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