Can Police Legally Track You Down Using Your Cell Phone?

Every seven seconds your cell phone registers itself with the nearest cell phone tower. This means that every seven seconds your phone, while turned on, is giving your cell phone company your location to an increasingly specific degree.

The New Jersey Supreme Court took on State v. Earls, 2013 N.J. LEXIS 735, to decide whether people have a constitutional right of privacy to the location information that their phone releases. In Earls, the police obtained the location of defendant Earls using the signals his phone gave off to nearby cell towers.

The trial court ruled that the police needed a search warrant, which they did not have, to obtain Earls’ location through his cell phone provider. However, the court found that an exception to the search warrant requirement applied, thus allowing the prosecution to use the evidence of defendants location against him. The appellate court agreed with the trial court’s ruling to allow the evidence, but disagreed that the police even needed a search warrant in the first place.

The N.J. Supreme Court overruled the lower courts’ holdings. The Court found that “individuals have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the location of their cell phones under the State Constitution.” Id. at 11. The Court went on to further clarify that despite the importance of this type of information for purposes of deterring crime, and prosecuting defendants, that police must obtain a valid search warrant based on probable cause, in order to obtain the location information which your cell phone is constantly emitting.

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