Should Police have Access to Cell Data without Warrant?

John Lister's picture

The Supreme Court has refused to consider a case that could have decided if the government needs a warrant to track a person's location through their cellphone. That means lower courts may continue to make case-by-case decisions on the issue.

A man named Quartavious Davis had asked the Supreme Court to hear his case. He was sentenced to 1,941 months in prison for taking part in multiple robberies. As part of their investigation, local police acquired Davis's cellphone records from MetroPCS and were able to link him to seven crime scenes.

An appeals court rejected Davis's argument, which stated that by failing to get a warrant before getting the records, the police had violated the Fourth Amendment, which "unreasonable searches and seizures" and requires "probable cause" before a judge can issue a search warrant.

Police Cite 1986 Law for Reasonable Grounds

The police argued that their position was covered by the Stored Communications Act, which says that accessing customer records held by a third party requires only the lower burden of "reasonable grounds" for suspicion. (Source:

Critics argue that because the law was created in 1986, it's now out of date and doesn't take account of the increase in the volume and scope of data that companies store about their customers.

The Supreme Court does not deal with issues of fact, but rather looks at cases where an important interpretation of the law is at stake and could affect other cases. Davis argued that it was important for the court to decide whether the Stored Communications Act is still compatible with the Fourth Amendment.

Supreme Court: Not Pressing Issue

The Supreme Court issued a ruling of "Certiorari Denied", which effectively means that the lower court's ruling will continue to stand rather than being renewed.

It's important to note this doesn't mean the Supreme Court gave any verdict on the merit of Davis's argument. Instead it simply decided his case was not significant enough to be among the 100 or so that it hears each year.

For now, courts dealing with cases involving cellphone location records will have to make their own verdict. To make things more confusing, a similar but separate case to that of Davis wound up with an appeals court, which states that the government does need a warrant, meaning there's no clear precedent for judges to follow. (Source:

What's Your Opinion?

Should the police or government need a warrant to access the location data held by your cellphone company? Does the law need updating to take account of modern technology? Should cellphone companies refuse to hand over location data unless forced to do so?

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Dennis Faas's picture

It's a tough call. I'm just wondering what happens if someone decides not to take a lie detector test if they are accused of committing a serious crime? Can police force people to take a polygraph? If so, I see no reason why cell phone data should not be used in the same respect. Surely if Mr. Davis used his cell phone data to prove he was -not- at the scene of the crime at a specific time, then maybe he wouldn't be going to jail.

SeaSteve's picture

My fist thought when I read the line "accessing customer records held by a third party" phone is now on a LEASE from my cell phone provider. The actual phone is not mine but owned by a "third party" meaning it can also be accessed with out my permission.

blueboxer2's picture

Unless the Canadian Bill of Rights has grown some unannounced amendments, this story refers to an action in the judicial system of a foreign country. Not that the police lobbyists haven't tried to get the same thing here, and not that Bill C-51 doesn't have more and worse hidden in its convoluted and complex labyrinths of prose.

But our new Prime Minister has promised to review and revise C-51 as necessary, and groups such as,, the B.C.Law Association and their allies have a protest movement that invites any citizen's input.

Personally, I feel that this should be handled like telephone tapping - yes it's permissible without notification of th target as long as a judge of a sufficiently senior court has issued a permissive warrant. Otherwise, keep it illegal.