Police may need court permission to place a tracking device on a suspect's car, but a federal appeals court says they don't need a warrant to monitor his cell phone GPS signal. The decision comes as law enforcement are increasingly using cell tower triangulation data to find criminals.
In a split decision expanding government surveillance powers, a federal appeals court has ruled police don't need a warrant to track the GPS signal and location of a suspect through his mobile phone.
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal voted 2-1 on Tuesday against requiring police to get court permission before tracking a cell phone user through the device's Global Positioning System signals, saying it was no different than using a dog to track human scent.
"If a tool used to transport contraband gives off a signal that can be tracked for location, certainly the police can track the signal," the court ruled in the majority opinion. "The law cannot be that a criminal is entitled to rely on the expected untrackability of his tools. Otherwise, dogs could not be used to track a fugitive if the fugitive did not know that the dog hounds had his scent."
The appeals court affirmed the conviction of a drug courier who was apprehended in the southwestern United States with half a ton of marijuana after law enforcment tracked his whereabouts via his mobile phone signal.
The ruling comes as police are shifting toward more use of cell phone tower triangulation and GPS phone tracking after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled they needed a warrant to place GPS tracking devices on suspects' vehicles.
Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., recently disclosed that police requested more than 1.3 million records for Americans' cell phone data in 2011.
You can read the full court decision here.
GPS or Global Positioning System is a satellite-based system that provides naviagtion and location information to electronic devices on earth.