Has Law Enforcement Been Tracking Your Location?


The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects citizens from "…unreasonable searches…" and for years the Supreme Court has produced a large amount of case law interpreting that protection. For years courts have deemed searches unreasonable if the subject of the search had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the place searched. For the most part a search is reasonable if a proper search warrant is obtained through a showing of probable cause. Last year the United States Supreme Court changed it's view on the Fourth Amendment when it issued its opinion in United States v. Jones, 131 S.Ct. 3064 (2011). In Jones the Court discussed the reasonableness of a tracking device which was attached to the bottom of defendant Jones's car. The device was eventually instrumental in the arrest and conviction of Jones. Jones then challenged the tracking device on appeal arguing that when law enforcement placed the device on his vehicle they trespassed upon his personal property. The United States Supreme Court agreed. The Court held that the trespass on Jones property that took place when law enforcement touched his car violated his reasonable expectation of privacy. This ruling began to change the landscape of Fourth Amendment protections by adding this trespassing standard to the reasonable expectation of privacy standard which we have grown accustomed to.

With cell phones with GPS capabilities becoming more and more common, law enforcement have begun tracking the movements of suspects via their cell phones. This practice has been questioned lately. Police are tracking suspects through their phones without obtaining a warrant. This practice is seen by many as a violation of the Fourth Amendment. Many believe that we have an expectation of privacy in our location. An argument can be made that we decide who we let know our whereabouts, because our location is private. The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, ruled on the issue of cell phone tracking in August of 2012.

United States of America v. Melvin Skinner, an appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee was decided and filed on August 14, 2012. Melvin Skinner, an alleged Drug Dealer of Knoxville Tennessee was convicted, in part because law enforcement was able to track his whereabouts via his cell phone. Authorities tracked Skinner from Nashville to California, eventually arresting him in Texas where Skinner was driving a motor home containing more than 1,100 pounds of marijuana. Did police violate Skinner's rights by tracking him via his cell phone? The Sixth Circuit says NO. The Court reasoned that because Skinner published his location via his cell phone to his cellular provider, he had no reasonable expectation of privacy in his GPS signal.

It is not yet clear whether or not Skinner will appeal his case to the United States Supreme Court.

If you believe your movements are being tracked by law enforcement or if you have reason to believe you are the subject of a criminal investigation, it is important that you consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney to ensure your rights are not being violated. To discuss your Fourth Amendment rights or the facts of your specific case, please feel free to contact The Bowlin Law Firm today.