Can police use your cellphone and cellphone towers to determine your location? If so, do police officers need to get a warrant based on probable cause before they do? These are the questions that one lawsuit hoped to solve for the whole country, but the Supreme Court of the United States has declined to hear the case. Since Minnesota courts and the federal court responsible for Minnesota have not yet heard the issue either, it remains to be seen whether this is permissible under criminal law.
It is not entirely clear why the Supreme Court has rejected the case, considering that last year they took up a case that decided whether police needed a probable-cause warrant before seruptitiously attaching a GPS device to a car to track a defendant’s location. Since the court ruled that police officers do need a warrant, it would not be unreasonable for the court to rule that police need a warrant for using cell towers to locate defendants, as well.
As of yet, however, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, the court responsible for Minnesota, has not yet issued a ruling on this, which means that there is little preventing Minneapolis police officers from tracking defendants using their cellphones.
As this issue becomes more contentious and there are more court decisions defining what is and what is not acceptable, it is possible that there will be more interest by the Supreme Court in taking up the case. For now, however, it seems Minneapolis and St. Paul police officers are able to ask cellphone providers to hand over location data for an investigation.
Source: Wired, “Courts Can’t Agree on Whether Cops Can Track Your Cell Without a Warrant,” David Kravets, July 3, 2013