Cell Tower Location Data Privacy Decision Reversed
Last July, we reported on United States v. Davis, an Eleventh Circuit decision in favor of privacy rights. In that case, a three-judge panel held that cell phone users have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their cell phone location data. If the government wants to collect the data, it must first obtain a probable-cause warrant, as required by the Fourth Amendment.
The groundbreaking decision seemed a clear victory for privacy rights, but the victory proved to be ephemeral. Last year, the en banc court agreed to revisit the question and, weeks ago, declared that subscribers do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their cell tower location data. As a result, the government can collect such data from third-party service providers if it shows reasonable grounds to believe the information is relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation.
In February 2010, defendant Quartavius Davis was convicted on multiple counts for robbery and weapons offenses. Davis appealed on grounds that the trial court admitted cell tower location data that the prosecution had obtained from a cell phone service provider in violation of Davis’ constitutional rights. An Eleventh Circuit panel agreed with Davis. Speaking for the court, Judge Sentelle explained that Davis had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the aggregation of data points reflecting his movement in public and private places. The government’s collection of the data was a warrantless “search” in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
To reach that decision, the panel leaned heavily on a 2012 Supreme Court case called United States v. Jones. In Jones, the Court announced that the government must have a probable-cause warrant before it can place a GPS tracking device on a suspect’s car and monitor his travel on public streets. The Court so held based on a trespass (or physical intrusion) theory. Absent probable cause, the government could not commandeer the suspect’s bumper for purposes of tracking his movement, even if each isolated movement was observable in public. Several Justices went further, suggesting that the same result should obtain even without a trespass. They hinted that location data might be protected because individuals have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the sequence of their movements over time. It was this persuasive but nonbinding privacy theory that guided the Eleventh Circuit’s panel decision.
On rehearing, the en banc court rejected the panel’s approach. The court noted that Davis could prevail only if he showed that a Fourth Amendment “search” occurred and that the search was unreasonable. He could show neither. To demonstrate a search, Davis had to establish a subjective expectation and objective expectation of privacy in his cell tower location data. But this case involved the collection of non-content cell tower data from a third-party provider who collected the information for legitimate business purposes: the records were not Davis’ to withhold. According to the court, Davis had no subjective expectation of privacy in the data because cell phone subscribers know (i) that when making a call, they must transmit their signal to a cell tower within range, (ii) that in doing so, they are disclosing to the provider their general location within a cell tower’s range, and (iii) that the provider keeps records of cell-tower usage. But even if Davis could claim a subjective expectation of privacy, he could not show an objective expectation. In the court’s view, Supreme Court precedent made clear that customers do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in non-content data voluntarily transmitted to third-party providers. Because there was no “search,” there could be no violation of Davis’ constitutional rights.
The en banc court explained further that Jones did nothing to undermine the third-party doctrine. For one, Jones involved a government trespass on private property. But the records in Davis were not obtained by means of a government trespass or even a search, so Jones did not control. Additionally, Jones involved location data that was first collected by the government in furtherance of a criminal investigation. By contrast, Davis involved location data that was first compiled by a service provider in the ordinary course of business. Simply put, “[t]he judicial system does not engage in monitoring or a search when it compels the production of preexisting documents from a witness.”