US Court Approves Cellphone GPS Tracking by Police

Dennis Faas's picture

A U.S. federal appeals court has ruled that police and other law enforcement officials have the right to use Global Positioning System (GPS) data from a suspect's cellphone without a warrant.

The judges decided a technicality in existing law means such actions do not violate the Fourth Amendment, which forbids unreasonable search and seizure by the federal government.

The Appeals Court ruling came in the case of convicted drug dealer Melvin Skinner, who was tracked down by GPS after an investigation.

The investigation involved acquiring a cellphone number used by Skinner. Drug enforcement agents then obtained a court order to force the network operator to hand over technical details of Skinner's phone.

Using these details, the agents were able to "ping" the phone. That is, they sent the phone a dummy message that wouldn't alert Skinner.

Doing this revealed the phone's location to the agents, and thus helped them track down Skinner and ultimately arrest him.

Suspect Claims Fourth Amendment Violated

Skinner thereafter appealed his conviction, claiming that the investigation violated his rights under the Fourth Amendment. His lawyers argued that the court order was insufficient in this case, and that officials should have acquired a formal search warrant.

The defense lawyers argued that the agents may not have had enough evidence to get a warrant, which would have meant showing "probable cause" rather than mere suspicion.

Two of the three judges on the appeals panel ruled against Skinner, stating that the government's actions were both constitutional and legal under the Stored Communications Act.

This law says that, although officials do not have the right to access the contents of phone calls and emails without a warrant, they can legitimately find out the time and location of such communications. (Source:

GPS Cellphone Data Gives No Right to Privacy

Although Skinner had been unaware that his pre-paid phone had a GPS feature, the judges ruled that he had no reasonable expectation of privacy when it came to the phone's location. They said he voluntarily chose to use the handset, making the tracking legal.

This is the latest in a series of GPS tracking incidents by law enforcement officials that have been considered by legal experts. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court ruled against law enforcement officials who caught a suspect by putting a GPS tracker on his vehicle.

The judges in the Skinner case acknowledged that previous ruling, but said it wasn't relevant in this most recent case because law enforcement officials did not physically touch Skinner's property. (Source:

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