Warrants are an important part of the legal process in this country. If the police want to search your house, they must obtain a warrant from a judge. New technology like social media and smartphones are not as strictly defined by the Fourth Amendment. Unfortunately, it leads to problems.
Ars Technica is reporting that the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has ruled that police can track people via their smartphones without a warrant. What would cause them to rule in favor of warrantless tracking? The court says that it’s because you gladly share your location via smartphones.
The case in question involved a drug runner named Melvin Skinner. The police used his GPS location information to track and arrest him. Skinner’s defense says that the police were in violation of the Fourth Amendment because they needed a warrant to see that data. One of the judges in the case, John Rogers, wasn’t buying it. Here’s what he wrote in the majority opinion:
“There is no Fourth Amendment violation because Skinner did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the data given off by his voluntarily procured pay-as-you-go cell phone. If a tool used to transport contraband gives off a signal that can be tracked for location, certainly the police can track the signal.”
By the court’s logic, it was Skinner’s fault that he was caught. He essentially handed the police his location via his smartphone and the police could track it very easily. Simple, right? Unfortunately, nothing in this world is ever so simple.
It turns out that the police were able to track him thanks to the Stored Communications Act. The law does not allow law enforcement to listen in on conversations, but it does allow them to see where calls are being directed. This lets them know, via GPS tracking, where a person is.
What about the case earlier this year concerning the warrantless GPS tracking of cars? The Supreme Court knocked that one down. The Appeals Court said that Skinner could be tracked because obtaining his GPS data was not a “physical intrusion.”
Does this mean that police can now start tracking you via your smartphone whenever they want? Not really. It does, however, raise the question of what role the Fourth Amendment should play in the 21st centry. It’s obvious that we need to amend laws, and maybe even the Constitution, to address concerns of the modern age. Skinner’s case is just another catalyst that may or may not enact that change.