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Does tracking cell phone usage require a warrant?

North Carolina residents who have smartphones may have a tracking feature that allows their location to be geographically identified. In some cases, this smartphone feature may interface with an individual’s other electronic devices, such as a home computer, and provide an easy way to locate a lost or stolen smartphone.

However, it turns out that individual cell phone owners aren’t the only one using the locational tracking ability of cellphone towers. Federal officials may also have been tuning in to the whereabouts of certain Americans.

A criminal defense attorney might observe that a warrant is often required in contexts where enforcement officers seek personal information from an individual who is not under arrest, but merely under suspicion of a crime. This Fourth Amendment warrant requirement is often an issue in wiretaps. However, the law as applied to GPS devices is a bit more nuanced.

For example, the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that a warrant is required before federal officers may attach a GPS tracking device to a criminal suspect’s motor vehicle. However, some officials have circumvented this requirement by using cellphone towers to obtain locational data about individuals under investigation. Among lower federal courts, there are conflicting precedents on whether a warrant is required to track the locations where suspects are making calls using tower data.

The Supreme Court has not specifically addressed this variation of tracking data. Until a consistent national law or precedent is issued, the importance of obtaining a skilled criminal defense lawyer might be even more important. An attorney can review the evidence obtained from warrantless searchers, looking for procedural deficiencies or practices that are in conflict with local law. An attorney can also raise equitable arguments about the need for protecting individual privacy, in spite of technological inventions with potentially invasive applications.

Source:, “Courts Can't Agree on Whether Cops Can Track Your Cell Without a Warrant,” David Kravets, July 3, 2013