Fourth Amendment - Warrantless Searches - New Jersey Supreme Court Holds That State Constitution Requires Police to Obtain Warrant before Accessing Cell-Site Location Information

Article excerpt


Technological advances test the limits of search and seizure doctrine. They force courts to consider whether to leave in place the legal standards that governed individual privacy during an earlier time in American history or to alter them in the face of new methods of search or of seizure. (1) Lower federal courts and state courts, the early battlegrounds on which privacy disputes are waged, are often hesitant to distinguish Supreme Court precedent, even when changes in the technological landscape are dramatic. A conflict of this nature has been brewing in the courts over whether law enforcement must obtain a warrant before accessing individuals' cell-site location information (2) (CSLI) from cell phone service providers. (3)

Recently, in State v. Earls, (4) the New Jersey Supreme Court determined that, under New Jersey's constitution, (5) state and local police are required to obtain a warrant--unless their actions fit into an exception--before they can collect a criminal suspect's real-time CSLI from a wireless service provider. (6) In dicta, however, the court suggested that federal Fourth Amendment case law may potentially require the opposite holding mainly due to two major precedential obstacles: the third-party disclosure doctrine expounded upon by the U.S. Supreme Court in Smith v. Maryland, (7) which provides that individuals who voluntarily disclose information to third parties surrender their Fourth Amendment rights to that information, (8) and the public-private distinction established by the Court in United States v. Knotts, (9) which maintains that people lack Fourth Amendment rights to their location when they are located in a public place. (10) However, these doctrines need not foreclose reaching the same holding under the federal constitution as the Earls court did under the state constitution.

In 2006, while investigating a series of residential burglaries, the Middletown Township Police Department obtained a warrant to determine the location of a stolen cell phone. (11) The individual in possession of the cell phone, whom the police soon located, told them that his cousin, the defendant Thomas Earls, had sold him the phone and that Earls had perpetrated several burglaries, storing the stolen goods in a storage locker rented either by Earls or by his ex-girlfriend, Desiree Gates. (12) The police then located Gates, who consented to a search of the locker, in which the police found numerous stolen items. (13) The next day, Gates's cousin informed the police that Earls had learned of Gates's cooperation and had threatened her and that Gates had been missing since the search of the locker. (14) In order to locate Earls and Gates, the police requested and received--without first obtaining a warrant for this particular cell phone --the CSLI associated with the defendant's cell phone from T-Mobile, his service provider, three times over the course of one night. (15) Using the third set of information, the police were able to locate Earls and Gates and arrested Earls. (16) They also found and seized a variety of stolen goods in the motel room in which Earls and Gates were found. (17)

Earls was charged with third-degree burglary, among several other crimes. (18) The trial court denied his motion to suppress evidence seized from the motel room, which he claimed the police had only been able to locate via an unconstitutional search of his CSLI. (19) Employing the test introduced by the U.S. Supreme Court in Katz v. United States," under which the protections of the Fourth Amendment apply where a person has a "reasonable expectation of privacy," (21) the trial court determined that Earls did have such an expectation in his CSLI. (22) However, it found that the emergency aid exception (23) to the warrant requirement invalidated Earls's privacy argument. …


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