The United States and New Jersey Constitutions both protect against unreasonable searches and seizures. In determining whether an individual’s rights have been violated, a court may consider whether government action abused the individual’s reasonable expectation of privacy.

However, the tools available for “searching” change over time due to technological changes, such as the widespread use of cell phones. A recent Supreme Court of New Jersey case, State v. Earls, grappled with this issue in a burglary and theft case.

A suspect is located . . . using his cell phone location

A police detective, investigating a series of burglaries, followed several leads which led to the former girlfriend of a suspect. The girlfriend confirmed that she had leased a storage unit in Neptune, New Jersey, for which the suspect had paid. After the girlfriend consented to a search, the police found various items inside which they believed to be stolen.

The police obtained an arrest warrant for the suspect. In an effort to locate the suspect, the police then contacted the suspect’s cell phone provider at three different times and received information about the location of the cell phone. Eventually, the suspect was located in a motel and arrested.

The suspect pled guilty to burglary and theft charges, and received a sentence of seven years, with three years of parole ineligibility. The suspect challenged this result, saying that the police should have obtained a warrant before tracking the suspect via the cell-tower information from the cell phone provider.

Is a warrant necessary for cell phone tracking?

The Supreme Court of New Jersey noted that using a cellphone to determine the location of its owner can be very revealing-akin to using a tracking device – and is a degree of intrusion that a reasonable person might not anticipate. Generally, the privacy concerns increase in proportion to the precision and sophistication of the tracking technology.

Cell phone tracking information can reveal a broad range of personal ties and information related to family, friends, political groups, health-care providers and more. People buy cell phones to communicate with others, not to share detailed information about their location with the police.

Thus, the court held that obtaining a citizen’s location by accessing his cell phone, violates privacy interests as protected by the New Jersey Constitution. Because of the nature of the intrusion and the privacy interests involved, police must show probable cause to obtain a warrant, or qualify for a warrant exception, to obtain such tracking information. Therefore, the court reversed the trial court’s decision on the criminal charges and remanded it for further proceedings.

Were your rights violated?

If you are facing criminal charges, there may be many legal aspects to the case that are not immediately apparent. For example, if a search of some kind was involved, was it handled according to the constitutional requirements?

Any criminal allegation is serious and could affect your life and freedom. If you are accused of a crime, immediately seek out an experienced and tenacious criminal defense attorney who will protect your rights to the fullest extent possible.

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