Fourth Circuit Rules Warrant Required For Cell Records

Charlotte DWI Lawyer Brad Smith answers : I was found not guilty of a charge, but my record still shows the charge


Just last week the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals tackled a subject that is becoming increasingly important in criminal investigations: cellphone records. Courts across the country often find themselves wrestling with issues related to cellphone record requests; weighing the benefits to law enforcement with the privacy interests of defendants.


Police on cellphone Charlotte Criminal Attorney Mecklenburg DWI Law FirmIn the recent case, federal agents were investigating six armed robberies that took place in Maryland. To help in their search, the agents got court orders asking that Sprint provide 221 days of location information for the phones of two suspects. The court orders were enough to force the cellphone company to comply and investigators used the data to put together a map of their locations, cross-referencing where each was at the time of the robberies. The location data proved fruitful and led one suspect to be convicted of six robberies and sentenced to 147 years in prison, while the other was convicted of three robberies and sentenced to 72 years behind bars.


The Fourth Circuit decided to hear the case and ultimately held in a 2-1 decision that the federal agents had violated the Fourth Amendment rights of the suspects. Specifically, the court said that investigators should have obtained a warrant before accessing their cellphone records and that the failure to not secure such a warrant amounts to an unconstitutional violation of the suspects’ rights.


The Justice Department had argued that there was no privacy protection because users gave the location information freely to the cellphone providers. The Court rejected this argument and explained that it did not accept the idea that cellphone users lost any right of privacy simply by choosing to activate their phones and carry them on their person.


The difference between what the Fourth Circuit now requires (a warrant) and what the investigators got (a court order) is important. A court order only requires agents to show that the records being requested are “relevant and material” to a continuing investigation. With a warrant, the agents would have had to meet a higher burden, demonstrating that there was a reasonable probability that a search of the records would lead to evidence of a crime.


The ruling is interesting not just because of what it means for those living in the Fourth Circuit (North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia), but also because of what it could mean for the whole country. The ruling by the Fourth Circuit differs with previous decisions by other federal courts of appeal. Specifically, two federal appeals courts have held that warrants are not required when investigators seek cellphone location records. Another appeals court decided that warrants need not be sought so long as investigators are looking only for real-time tracking for a short amount of time.


The split in decisions is significant because it makes it much more likely that the U.S. Supreme Court will have to intervene. One of the things that cause the court to hear a case is if the appeals courts have decided the issue differently. The Supreme Court can then step in and issue the final word on the subject, ensuring citizens across the country are given similar legal protections.


If you or someone you know has been charged with a crime and is in need of the services of an experienced criminal defense attorney, please give me a call to set up an appointment today. Arnold & Smith, PLLC is a Charlotte based criminal defense, traffic violation defense and civil litigation law firm servicing Charlotte and the surrounding area. If you or someone you know need legal assistance, please contact Arnold & Smith, PLLC today at (704) 370-2828   or find additional resources here.



About the Author

Brad Smith Charlotte Criminal and DWI LawyerBrad Smith is a Managing Member of Arnold & Smith, PLLC, where he focuses on the areas of criminal defense, DUI / DWI defense and traffic defense.

Mr. Smith was born and raised in Charlotte. He began his legal career as an Assistant District Attorney before entering private practice in 2006.

In his free time, Mr. Smith enjoys traveling, boating, golf, hiking and spending time with his wife and three children.






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