By Suhrith Parthasarathy
Dec 19 (Reuters) - A federal judge in Washington has ruled
that cell phone location information that was obtained without a
warrant may be used as evidence in the trial of a suspected drug
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle is a
blow to privacy activists, who had won a related battle when the
case previously went before the Supreme Court.
The case is against Antoine Jones, who was found guilty in
January 2008 of conspiring to distribute cocaine, based on
evidence obtained from a GPS device that tracked his car's
In January 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that placing the
GPS device on his car without a warrant violated Fourth
Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure,
and it ordered a retrial.
In the retrial, prosecutors obtained records on which cell
phone towers Jones's phone had been connected to. Cellular phone
companies typically maintain records of which cell tower a
user's phone was connected to at the beginning and end of each
call. The records were obtained with court permission but
without a warrant.
Jones's lawyers filed a motion to suppress the evidence on
March 29, arguing that obtaining such data without a warrant
amounted to an illegal search under the Fourth Amendment.
In her ruling, made last Friday, Judge Huvelle bypassed that
"vexing question" and ruled that federal agents had acted in
good faith in acquiring the data.
Huvelle noted that courts in the past have allowed law
enforcement officials to review historical cell-site data
through a court order and without a warrant for probable cause,
saying there was no reasonable expectation of privacy.
She also ruled that the court need not decide whether the
government violated the Fourth Amendment because, given the
unsettled nature of the law in 2005, it was reasonable for the
agents to believe that the Fourth Amendment was not implicated.
The defense had also argued that Judge Facciola -- who
granted the court order for cell-site data in 2005 and later
changed his position in other cases -- was merely acting as a
"rubber stamp for law enforcement." Huvelle described that
contention as "frivolous."
Hanni Fakhoury, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier
Foundation, which had filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the
case, said the decision was limited. By restricting her ruling
to the specific case, Huvelle has not made "any broader
decisions about future police conduct going forward," Fakhoury
In fact, Huvelle said that the Supreme Court may some day
consider the question of whether an individual has a reasonable
expectation of privacy for information disclosed to third
parties, such as cell phone companies.
The current third party doctrine has already come into
question in this case. In a concurring opinion to the Supreme
Court's ruling in January, Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted that
the third party doctrine was "ill-suited to the digital age."
The case is U.S. v. Antoine Jones, U.S. District Court for
the District of Columbia, No. 05-CR-386(1)(ESH)
For the United States: Arvind K. Lal of the U.S. Attorney's
For Jones: A. Eduardo Balarezo of Balarezo Law.
Follow us on Twitter @ReutersLegal | Like us on Facebook