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Cell tower records need warrant according to Supreme Court

Cellphones records can be very persuasive in a criminal trial in Indiana. Therefore, they can present a significant challenge when one is establishing criminal defense strategy. However, constitutional protections apply to this evolving technology.

In its latest decision on protecting cellphone records, the Supreme Court ruled that law enforcement must receive a warrant before gaining access to cell tower records. These records can reveal a virtual chronology and map out a suspect's travels.

The Court ruled in favor of a defendant who is serving a 116-year prison sentence for his part in armed robberies at RadioShack and T-Mobile stores in and near Detroit in 2010 and 2011. Ironically, he was accused of leading a theft ring stealing smartphones. Another defendant said that he organized the thefts, supplied the weapons and was a lookout.

Police asked his cellphone carrier for records spanning 127 days that would reveal his cellphone use. These records show where a cellphone connects with each cell tower and the user's general vicinity. His records specifically revealed that his phone was at 12,898 locations and were close to the robberies when they occurred.

His lawyers argued that the police violated his client's Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure. They claimed that law enforcement should have convinced a judge that there was probable cause to issue a warrant for the records.

The Justice Department, however, claimed that the Stored Communications Act governed the case and provides a lower standard. Law enforcement would only have to demonstrate that the records are relevant and material to a law enforcement investigation.

In a 5 to 4 decision, the Court ruled in favor of the defendant. It cited the unique nature of cellphone information and evolving technology and ruled that a warrant was needed even though a third party possessed this information. However, the Court's ruling was narrow. It did not affect surveillance cameras or other records, and the Court said there may be emergency exceptions.

As this shows, it is important that a person's Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizures are upheld. Police must go through the proper channels to seize evidence, including seeking a warrant if necessary. If it is shown that police violated the Fourth Amendment in doing so, this can lead to the suppression of evidence seized through invalid searches.

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