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Sixth Circuit Rules that FBI’s Warrantless Petition for Cell-Site Records is Constitutional

The Fourth Amendment protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures by government officials without probable cause and a warrant signed by a magistrate. To determine whether or not a search or seizure is unreasonable, the presence or absence of a warrant may determine the unreasonableness of the search or seizure. Generally, a warrantless search or seizure is per se unreasonable; however, sometimes exigent circumstances may permit government intrusion in a limited of circumstances.

The Fourth Amendment’s Two-Pronged Test

Fourth Amendment privacy issues generally turn on a two-pronged test determining whether the individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy. The test requires that the reviewer determine first, if society would deem that a reasonable person would or would not have an expectation of privacy in the situation, and second, whether the person subjectively had a reasonable expectation of privacy. An expectation of privacy, such as in a situation where there is a private conversation between two individuals, may be diluted where one of the individuals proceeds to tell a third party voluntarily about the content of the conversation.

Private Data, Third Parties, and the Fourth Amendment

In our data and technology-driven world, private data is not always as private as one is made to believe. For example, third parties maintain private information all the time which, without further statutory protection, is considered less private than the average person would come to believe. For example, our financial information is provided to an accountant, where we believe there is an expectation of privacy and is shared information between ourselves and the accountant. However, in the eyes of data privacy law, you have revealed your private information to a third party, diluting your expectation of privacy, and possibly giving the government the opportunity to review the information.

This idea of revealing your personal information to a third party as being a dilution of your privacy rights has been one of the most debated issues of our digital age. Data protection law has been the center of controversy over the last decade, especially as our society has moved toward cell phones, computers, and digital clouds to handle our information.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals Ruling

In a recent case dealing with this situation, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that there was no Fourth Amendment violation when the government used cell-site records to determine that two suspects had used their cell phones close to the scene of an armed robbery that they had been suspected of committing. The government petitioned the third party who maintained the cell phone records for the two suspects. The suspects believed that this was a violation of their Fourth Amendment rights to privacy. The Sixth Circuit ruled that because the cell-site location records were held by a third party, the suspects’ expectation of privacy rights had diminished. In addition, the data that was requested evaluated the location of the individuals at a specific moment, rather than a full record of all of the locations that the subjects had been at for an extended period of time.

How This Case is Distinguished From Past U.S. Supreme Court Rulings

This case is distinguished from United States v. Jones, which reviewed the expectation of privacy of an individual whose car had a GPS tracker attached to its back. The U.S. Supreme Court had stated that generally the whereabouts of a person, especially when that person is in public, is not the type that needs to be protected by a warrant. However, the aggregate information that is compiled and reveals significant information about the person over a period of time is an invasion that arises to the necessity of a warrant.

Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney in Fort Lauderdale

Privacy and data is still highly contested, debatable, and at times, controversial. If any information or records that you have given to a third party is the subject of an investigation, it is important to speak with an experienced defense attorney like Kevin J. Kulik. Contact Kevin J. Kulik today for a free and confidential consultation in the Fort Lauderdale area.

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