Judges have the right to require warrants before police get cell phone records that could suggest a customer's likely location, according to a decision made by a U.S. Appeals Court.
The case involves the government's interest in records that show a caller's location during past calls. Cell phone tower records can pinpoint a user's location to within several hundred feet.
Judges in a Pittsburgh drug case had insisted that federal agents get a warrant for the data. The usage patterns could show when a phone customer is typically home, at work or at some other location, they said. The government appealed, arguing that the 1986 Electronics Communications Privacy Act required only "reasonable grounds" the data is relevant to a criminal investigation, not the higher probable cause standard needed for warrants.
The 32-page opinion by Judge Dolores Sloviter suggests judges have the discretion, and can demand more information from the government before deciding if a probable-cause warrant is needed. The panel ordered the Pittsburgh magistrate to do more fact-finding "and give a full explanation that balances the government's need (not merely desire) for the information with the privacy interests of cell phone users."