Govt. Must Disclose Cell Phone Tracking, DC Cir. Rules

By Stephanie Rabiner, Esq. on September 06, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

As a nation, we may soon learn more about warrantless cell phone tracking and the extent to which it is used by federal law enforcement.

On Tuesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia directed the Justice Department to provide the ACLU with a list of cases in which law enforcement obtained cell phone location data from telecommunication companies without first obtaining a warrant.

Though the initial list is limited to 255 cases resulting in a conviction or guilty plea, a lower court has been directed to consider a number of other incidents that ended in acquittal.

The ACLU's pursuit of this information is the result of concern that the Justice Department is increasingly acquiring and using cell phone tracking data without a warrant.

It requested a list of all cases (by name, docket number and court) where such tactics were used, in addition to documents describing the department's related policies, procedures and practices.

Finding that the DOJ cannot hide behind the privacy exceptions to the Freedom of Information Act, the court ruled that the requested data provides little information about the convicted individuals, and that all of it is readily accessible via the Internet.

It also found that the cell phone tracking data is of considerable public interest, and would help shed light on its effectiveness and the scope of its use.

While the provided data will likely allow the ACLU to make some conclusions about the types of cases in which these tactics are being used, this case does not actually get to the heart of the underlying issue.

Whether warrantless cell phone tracking is unconstitutional still remains up for debate.

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