Warrantless Grab of Cell Phone Location Records Unconstitutional, NYCLU Argues

Affiliate: ACLU of New York
June 15, 2015 12:15 pm

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NEW YORK – In a new legal brief, the New York Civil Liberties Union, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Brennan Center for Justice and the Electronic Frontier Foundation argue that the government cannot pry into historical databases of people’s cell phone location information without a warrant.

The brief concerns a case in which prosecutors compelled a cell phone provider to turn over more than half a year of a Long Island man’s cell phone location records without a warrant.

“Cell phone location information can provide a detailed and intimate portrait of someone’s private life – attendance at churches or mosques, intimate relationships, participation in a protest or visits to a psychiatrist,” said NYCLU Staff Attorney Mariko Hirose. “Law enforcement can’t make cell phone companies turn over New Yorkers’ intimate records without a warrant.”

In the case, People of the State of New York v. Ali Moalawi and Ricky Moore, in the course of investigating alleged burglaries on six discrete days, the prosecution went to the cell phone provider without a warrant and compelled the company to turn over more than six months of Moalawi’s cell phone location history. This history revealed 10,438 data points – a location point approximately every half hour – about Moalawi’s past locations, painting a highly detailed profile of his life including the nights that he spent at his home in Huntington Station, the nights that he spent at his fiancé’s home in Sea Gate, the days that he most likely did not work and a pattern of late-evening outings in Prospect Heights.

“This case is about more than just this one story,” Hirose said. “Ninety percent of Americans have a cell phone. Law enforcement shouldn’t be able to learn about all of our most intimate comings and goings without following very basic privacy protections.”

In its friend of the court brief, the NYCLU urges the court to suppress the cell phone location history in this case and argues that under the New York State Constitution, law enforcement must obtain a warrant before tapping into the historical database of people’s cell phone location information. The New York Court of Appeals held in People v. Weaver, in which the NYCLU also filed a brief, that law enforcement must obtain a warrant before capturing two months of GPS surveillance. Cellular service providers in turn now have the technology to record the geographic location of almost every American at almost every time of day and night. Nearly three-quarters of smart phone users report being within five feet of their phones most of the time, with 12 percent admitting that they even use their phones in the shower.

To read the full amicus brief and to see maps illustrating how much information the prosecution collected on Moalawi, visit: http://www.nyclu.org/news/warrantless-grab-of-cell-phone-location-records-unconstitutional-nyclu-argues

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