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Can the police track my whereabouts when I use my cell phone?


Without a search warrant police tracking is illegal . The Supreme Court of Florida, in Tracey v. State, ruled, on October 16, 2014, that the police cannot access real time cell site location information in order to track a person using his or her cell phone without first having probable cause to do so (and a search warrant). The Court held that a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy in the location signals transmitted by his or her cell phone - even on public roads. As a Jacksonville criminal defense lawyer, I can tell you that the police use this type of surveillance every day.

Whenever you dial a number using your cell phone, your phone connects to (usually) the cell phone tower that you are closest to, in order to complete the call. So for, example, if you are driving from Jacksonville to Tampa and you make five phone calls along the way, your travel can be tracked because your phone will connect to different cell towers along the way. And if the police access this information, they will know the times that you were at each place along the way.

Shawn Tracey was convicted of possessing more that 400 grams of cocaine. The police learned that Tracey purchased cocaine in Broward County for distribution on the west coast of Florida. They got his cell phone number and started monitoring his phone calls. Then, they got information from his cell phone service provider, including real time cell site location information given off by his cell phone when he made phone calls. They used this information to monitor his location. After tracking Tracey to his final location, he was stopped in his car and searched. Cocaine and cash were found in his car. The police did not have a court order for the real time cell site location information they were getting from Tracey's cell phone provider. In short, they did not have a court order to track him. Tracey moved to suppress this evidence. The lower court denied his motion, holding that Tracey did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in his whereabouts on public streets and highways.

But the Supreme Court of Florida ruled that the use of real time cell site location information to track Tracey violated his Fourth Amendment rights. Accessing this information by the police constituted a 'search' for which they needed probable cause (and a search warrant). As the court noted, our whereabouts can now be easily determined by the police. All it takes is for them to access our cell phone information. The court ruled that we have a reasonable expectation of privacy in our whereabouts, even on the public streets. Tracey's motion to suppress this evidence should have been granted, the court ruled.

Lesson Learned:

This is a groundbreaking decision in favor of an individual's right to privacy in our even increasing electronic age, Simply, put, this type of tracking is an invasion of our privacy. When we use our cell phones we don't expect the government or the police to be tracking us. The electronic monitoring of a citizen's location can generate a comprehensive record of a person's public movements which that person may wish to keep private, such as visits to the phychiarist, the plastic surgeon, the abortion clinic, the AIDS treatment center, the strip club or even the criminal defense lawyer's office. Today, few people venture out without their cell phones. If the police want to track a citizen this way, they must get a search warrant.

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