Warrantless Phone Tracking OK to Find Fugitive

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By Jordan S. Rubin

Police could track a fugitive’s real-time mobile phone location without a warrant for seven hours, the Sixth Circuit held June 5 ( United States v. Riley , 2017 BL 187987, 6th Cir., No. 16-6149, 6/5/17 ).

Courts across the country have been evaluating law enforcement’s use of mobile phone location data.

This case required the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit to build on one if its previous cases in this area, United States v. Skinner. The court, in that decision, approved three days of warrantless phone tracking of a suspect’s public movements.

In the case of fugitive Montai Riley, the marshals got a court order to help find him.

It required Riley’s service provider to give the marshals his mobile phone GPS coordinates in real-time. The GPS led the marshals to a Memphis motel, where a clerk gave them Riley’s room number.

The phone GPS only revealed what the marshals could’ve otherwise seen in public, the Sixth Circuit said in rejecting Riley’s argument that a warrant was needed. Court orders require less proof than warrants.

The marshals got Riley’s room number from the clerk, not his phone GPS, the court said in affirming the denial of his motion to suppress.

And Riley’s phone was tracked for about seven hours, less than the three-day tracking approved in Skinner, the court said.

The unsigned opinion was issued by the three judge panel of Senior Judge Danny J. Boggs, Judge John M. Rogers, and Judge Deborah L. Cook. Boggs wrote a separate concurring opinion.

The Clairborne Ferguson Law Firm, P.A., Memphis, Tenn. represented Riley. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Tennessee, Memphis, Tenn. represented the government.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jordan S. Rubin in Washington at jrubin@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: C. Reilly Larson at rlarson@bna.com

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