Sixth Circuit Approves Warrantless Tracking of Cell Phone Location
By Michael Hoven – Edited by Andrew Crocker
United States v. Skinner, No. 09-6497 (6th Cir. Aug. 14, 2012)
The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld a jury’s conviction of Melvin Skinner on two counts related to drug trafficking and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering, rejecting Skinner’s argument on appeal that the district court had wrongly denied his motion to suppress evidence on the grounds that it was obtained through an unlawful search.
The Sixth Circuit held that law enforcement did not need a warrant to track Skinner through cell-site information, GPS location, and “ping” data. Because Skinner had “no reasonable expectation of privacy in the data given off” by his phone, the police were free to collect and use that data, and there was no violation of the Fourth Amendment. Skinner, No. 09-6497, slip op. at 6. In so holding, the court distinguished its case from United States v. Jones, 132 S. Ct. 945 (2012) (previously covered by the Digest), in which the Supreme Court held that placing a GPS tracking device on a car violated the Fourth Amendment. Unlike Jones, in which police trespassed onto private property, Skinner purchased the phone himself and the phone freely emitted signals that revealed his location, which eliminated any reasonable expectation of privacy on Skinner’s part.
Bloomberg Businessweek provides an overview of the case. Several commentators, including Orin Kerr at the Volokh Conspiracy, Jennifer Granick at the Center for Internet and Society, and Julian Sanchez at Cato @ Liberty, criticize the court’s discussion of cell phone technology, noting that pinging a cell phone is a request for the cell phone to return a signal, and therefore ping data is not “given off” in the way the court appears to conceive.