Cell-Site Location Information: How “Good Faith” Reliance Circumvented Fourth Amendment Protections

Cell-Site Location Information: How “Good Faith” Reliance Circumvented Fourth Amendment Protections

Author: JAT
Case Citation: U.S. v. Pleasant, Criminal Action No. 17-62 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 5, 2018)
Employee/Personnel/Employer Implicated: Police, Miscellaneous
eLesson Learned: Despite the recent Supreme Court decision in Carpenter, the warrantless seizure of cell-site location information (CSLI) was found to be permissible where law enforcement acts on a good faith basis pursuant to the Stored Communications Act, and the information is relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation.
Tweet This: Bank robbers thwarted! Reasonable expectation of privacy provides no defense when law enforcement acted upon good faith in accessing cell-site location information.

In this digital age, one’s expectation of privacy under the Fourth Amendment is subject to immense scrutiny. Cell-site location information (CSLI), for instance, gives off the user’s location without their consent, tracking their every movement throughout the day. This level of intrusiveness raises “Big Brother-esque” concerns and potential abuses by law enforcement. However, there are situations where accessing CSLI is reasonable, and even permissible, in order to prevent criminal activity. Consider the following case as an example of how electronically stored information, in the form of CSLI, operates in the context of balancing Fourth Amendment protections against warrantless searches and seizures, against the need to give law enforcement proper recourse to prevent criminal activity.

In United States v. Pleasant, No. 17-62 (E.D. Pa. 2018), the court allowed the introduction of CSLI as evidence, even though the information was acquired without a warrant. The defendant Pleasant had committed multiple bank robberies, but unbeknownst to him, his cell phone was conveying information to nearby cell towers. Information from the several towers can be used to triangulate the owner’s position. Law enforcement officers accessed Pleasant’s CSLI without procuring an official warrant. Instead, the officers acted under § 2703(c) of the Stored Communications Act to get the information from the cell provider based on showing that the records were “relevant and material” to an ongoing criminal investigation. At trial, Pleasant moved to suppress the CSLI associated with his cellular phone. His argument: that the recent Supreme Court decision in Carpenter v. United States, 585 U.S. (2018) violated [his Fourth Amendment freedom from such a seizure of his information without a warrant. The Supreme Court in Carpenter held that accessing CSLI from wireless carriers violates an individual’s reasonable expectation of privacy in their physical movements and that such information must be obtained by a warrant based upon probable cause. But why, then, did this ruling from the highest court in the land, not hold in Pleasant?

Ordinarily, evidence obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment is not allowed to be introduced at trial. This notion is known as the exclusionary rule. But as is the case with many “rules” of law; there is an exception. For, you see, the exclusionary rule was meant as a deterrence, or a kind of judicially imposed sanction, applied when necessary to enforce the Fourth Amendment so as to deter abuses by law enforcement officers. Thus, the court in Pleasant posits an overriding question: Is there some deterrent purpose being served by excluding the evidence of CSLI in this case? The answer, NO. Here the court found that the law enforcement officers were acting in “good-faith” such that their warrantless access of the CSLI was legally permissible. The law enforcement officers justified their actions by reliance on the Stored Communications Act, which was essentially good law before the Supreme Court ruling in Carpenter. Somewhat ironically, law enforcement officers probably had no idea that legal issues concerning CSLI raised in Carpenter, was to be heard by the Supreme Court during the course of their investigation. Maybe it was by dumb luck, or perhaps it was by clever arguments from counsel, that the court in Pleasant held that an officer’s good-faith reliance on a federal statute that operated as controlling precedent at the time, sufficed to permit the CSLI as evidence.

It must be understood that the relevant provision of the Stored Communications Act that the law enforcement officers relied upon in Pleasant is no longer operative in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Carpenter. That is, accessing CSLI must be done with an official warrant. Merely claiming that CSLI information is “relevant” to an ongoing criminal investigation is unlikely to be sufficient justification for a warrantless seizure of that information from cell providers. What happened in Pleasant might be an oddity and such circumstances are unlikely to repeat again.[

JAT is a second-year law school student at Seton Hall University School of Law pursuing an Intellectual Property Concentration along the Technology and Business Law track.

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