Kentucky court considers use of cellphones for tracking

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FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — A sharply divided Kentucky Supreme Court ruled Thursday that police violated constitutional protections for a robbery suspect…

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — A sharply divided Kentucky Supreme Court ruled Thursday that police violated a robbery suspect’s constitutional protections by accessing his cell phone without a warrant, calling the phone’s use a burglary device. followed by “deeply invasive”.

In the 4-3 decision, the majority of the court said the robbery suspect was searched without a warrant when police obtained real-time cellphone location information. They ruled that the information was acquired illegally and should be excluded from evidence.

At issue was whether there was a “reasonable expectation of privacy” regarding a person’s real-time location information at a cell site, also known as CSLI, under federal Fourth Amendment protections against abusive searches and seizures. Such information can be used to determine the location of a cellphone with “near perfect accuracy” when the phone is turned on, the court noted.

“By obtaining real-time CSLI from an individual’s cell phone, police are commandeering the cell phone and its transmissions for the purpose of locating that individual,” Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr. said in writing for the majority. “We find this usurpation of an individual’s private property deeply intrusive, and liken it to a technological intrusion.”

The decision stems from a case in Woodford County, Ky., involving robbery suspect Dovontia Reed. One of his lawyers hailed it as a high-profile victory for civil liberties.

“It’s kind of a court guarantee that the government can’t search your CSLI in real time to get your location without a warrant,” said Adam Meyer, a public defender representing Reed in his appeals. “And what that means is that it will protect anyone who has a cellphone now.”

The state attorney general’s office did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

Reed had called an acquaintance on his cellphone, saying he had run out of gas and asked that they meet at a gas station in Versailles. When the acquaintance arrived, Reed allegedly robbed her of $500 at gunpoint and fled in a vehicle, authorities say. The police obtained the cell phone number used by Reed.

The cellular service provider located the phone and authorities used the information to track Reed’s movements, the opinion noted. Reed was arrested and arrested, and a grand jury charged him with robbery, possession of a handgun by a convicted felon, and receiving stolen property.

Reed claimed the police illegally obtained the cellphone’s location information without a warrant. A judge denied his request to suppress the information and evidence obtained during the search. He pleaded conditionally guilty to second-degree robbery charges, reserving the right to challenge the denial of his motion. He was sentenced to prison about five years ago, but has since been released on parole, Meyer said.

On appeal, the state Court of Appeals ruled that obtaining real-time location information from Reed’s cellphone amounted to a warrantless and unreasonable search. The majority of the Supreme Court agreed, sending the case back to the lower court for further proceedings to delete the cellphone data.

“Today, we believe individuals have an objective and reasonable expectation that their cell phones will not be used as real-time tracking devices by direct and active interference from law enforcement,” wrote Minton.

He wrote that searching for cellphone content is an invasion of “a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy sufficient to merit Fourth Amendment protection.” The Court of Appeals said the Fourth Amendment requires a warrant to search for a person’s cell site location information.

“We find no reason why such an expectation of privacy should not extend to data unwittingly, unwittingly transmitted by a person’s cell phone to their cellular service provider regarding their location,” Minton said. “Police cannot overturn the warrant requirement simply by going directly to the cellular service provider.”

As the case progressed, state attorneys said the consequences would be that police would still have to obtain a warrant before obtaining real-time location information from a suspect’s cellphone. .

The majority of the Supreme Court was unwavering. Minton noted “the ease with which technology allows police to obtain warrants and the invasive nature” of seeking information about a person’s cell location.

Associate Chief Justice Lisabeth T. Hughes and Justices Michelle M. Keller and Christopher Shea Nickell joined Minton in the majority opinion.

In his dissenting opinion, Justice Laurance B. VanMeter advocated an alternative framework: that individuals have no reasonable expectation of privacy regarding their real-time cell phone location data when traveling on the public highway, and when the information sought is limited in “scope and purpose.”

The dissenting opinion said the trial court’s denial of the motion to strike should be reinstated. Joining the dissent were Justices Robert B. Conley and Debra Hembree Lambert.

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