On Thursday, the Florida Supreme Court held that the trial court should have suppressed evidence obtained by Broward Sheriff’s Office (BSO) when officers went beyond the scope of a search warrant by tracking the real-time movements of a defendant’s cell phone.
BSO had obtained a search warrant for the cellphone of Sean Alvin Tracey. The warrant permitted BSO to obtain phone numbers sent or received by Tracey’s phone. However, the warrant did not permit BSO to track the phone’s location. BSO’s tracking of the real-time movements of Tracey’s phone, based on pings from cell towers, led to polcie surveillance of Tracey, and the ultimate confiscation of a kilo of cocaine and $23,000 in cash.
The Florida Supreme Court ruled that the evidence obtained from the cell tower tracking of Tracey’s phone should have been suppressed. The case was remanded to the trial court, which means that the prosecution will either have to go forward without the evidence, or dismiss the case.
The Supreme Court’s decision, authored by Chief Justice Labarga, states:
“We conclude that Tracey had a subjective expectation of privacy in the location signals transmitted solely to enable the private and personal use of his cell hone, even on public roads, and that he did not voluntarily convey that information to the service provider for any purpose other than to enable use of his cell phone for its intended purpose.”
Essentially, it was the Court’s decision that the scope of a warrant shouldn’t be expanded to include the location of a person just because that person turned on his or her cell phone:
“… Because cell phones are indispensable to so many people and are normally carried on one’s person, cell phone tracking can easily invade the right to privacy in one’s home or other private areas, a matter that the government cannot always anticipate and one which, when it occurs, is clearly a Fourth Amendment violation. The Supreme Court noted in Riley that “modern cell phones . . . are now such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of the human anatomy. A smart phone of the sort taken from Riley was unheard of ten years ago; a significant majority of American adults now own such phones.” . . . This real risk of “inadvertent” violation of Fourth Amendment rights is not a risk worth imposing on the citizenry when it is not an insurmountable task for the government to obtain a warrant based on probable cause when such tracking is truly justified.”
The full decision can be found on the Florida Supreme Court’s website here: Tracey v. State