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Appeals Court rules police can access cellphone location data without warrant

People use their cellphones to communicate with friends and family.
People use their cellphones to communicate with friends and family.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In a 12-3 decision, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia voted (Tuesday, May 31) that law enforcement can obtain an individual’s cell phone location data without a warrant.  

Judge Diana Motz writing for the majority wrote that gathering cell phone location data without a warrant does not violate the Constitution’s 4th Amendment because cell phone users voluntarily share that information with their cell phone providers.

The decision-- a blow to privacy advocates-- is a reversal of a previous 2015  ruling by the court. The ruling aligns with three other regional appeals courts in allowing law enforcement in Maryland, North and South Carolina to obtain cell phone records by merely showing that the records are relevant to an ongoing investigation. The decision was based on the legal theory known as the Third Party doctrine, which states that there are no privacy protections for Americans when they volunteer information to third parties such as cell phone companies, banks, and social media profile information.

Opponents of the ruling dispute the argument that cell phone location data is voluntary and that that long term information about a caller’s movements requires greater protection.

The ACLU told the Wall Street Journal that they are ready to take the issue to the Supreme Court, however, with four regional appeals courts in agreement, the likelihood that the justices will take up the case seems unlikely.


Rebecca Lonergan, professor at USC’s Gould School of Law, and former federal prosecutor with the United States Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles for over 20 years

Andrew Crocker, staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit digital rights group; the EFF wrote an amicus brief to the 4th circuit court’s previous 3 judge panel in 2015 stating that citizens have an expectation of privacy in historical cell site records. View the press release here