In the first appellate ruling on a cutting-edge privacy issue, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit declared that cell phone location data may trigger Fourth Amendment concerns and that prosecutors demanding access to such records may be required at times to satisfy a probable cause standard, reports The Legal Intelligencer. The ruling is a setback for the Justice Department, which argued that judges are required under the Stored Communications Act to issue orders for access to such data whenever prosecutors show that it would be “material” and “relevant” to an ongoing investigation.
The appellate court largely adopted the position of a coalition of civil rights and privacy groups who argued that judges must be free to decide when to demand that prosecutors satisfy the probable cause standard. “Because the statute as presently written gives the magistrate judge the option to require a warrant showing probable cause, we are unwilling to remove that option although it is an option to be used sparingly,” said U.S. Circuit Judge Dolores Sloviter. The ruling was hailed as an important protection of privacy rights by professor Susan Freiwald of the University of San Francisco School of Law, an expert in the area of privacy and technology, one of two lawyers arguing against the government. Freiwald said the larger importance of the appellate court’s decision was the panel’s rejection of the Justice Department’s reading of the statute as well as the government’s arguments about the modern-day implications of two significant decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1970s.