The future of cell phone privacy is under question, as judges struggle with the legality of searching and tracking suspects through mobile devices without a warrant.
The Department of Justice is arguing law enforcement doesn’t need a warrant to search phones purchased under a fake name. The argument comes from an Arizona criminal case, where law enforcement used a stingray device to ping defendant Daniel David Rigmaiden’s cell phone to find him. Rigmaiden argued the search violated his Fourth Amendment rights.
Because Rigmaiden purchased the mobile broadband card, mobile service, and computer — all under a fake name, law enforcement fired back with a January 27 filing saying Rigmaiden gave up his constitutional right to privacy.
The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable search and seizure of private property, and current interpretations are struggling to see where mobile devices fit under these broader descriptions.
Phone privacy cases like this test boundaries of what government can access on a personal cell phone, and if a warrant is necessary. The fake name exception may lead to more precedents on how far law enforcement can go using today’s technology in investigations.
Mobile data aids law enforcement in cracking cases at an increasing rate, as text messages, locations, and saved information can stand up as evidence in court if they are legally obtained.
Past cases remain divided over the matter, but support is growing for the idea that tracing suspects requires warrants. For example, a judge in a recent federal case ruled a warrant is necessary to search phone call records.
The Supreme Court also tackled the issue regarding GPS monitoring of suspects, and unanimously decided law enforcement violated Fourth Amendment rights when it tracked a suspect for 28 days without a warrant.
Fourth Amendment policies are upheld when searches require warrants, but the fake name argument has potential to expand government access to citizen property. Opponents to this reasoning argue that the use of a false identity isn’t necessarily an illegal act that should allow police to strip someone’s rights.
A ruling in favor of the false-name argument may result in broader search requirements down the road. Officials may find more ways to use technology against suspects and courts sift through the arguments to ensure public safety while at the same time protecting individual rights.