Capital Region Legal News

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Warrantless Cell Phone Pinging: Is this Constitutional?

As criminal defense attorneys, we routinely review the initial series of events giving rise to an arrest to ensure constitutional criminal procedures were followed. Whether the case involves a traffic stop, stop-and-frisk or search of a property, we are often able to pinpoint certain issues that may have been unconstitutional leading up to the arrest. For instance, the search of a property must begin with a valid search warrant based upon probable cause. Similarly, police must have a “reasonable suspicion” of criminal activity prior to stopping a vehicle. Otherwise, any evidence gathered in violation of these procedures could be excluded from the prosecution’s case – making it very difficult to secure a conviction.

As technology advances, the application of constitutional principles often becomes somewhat unclear. Take cell phone “pinging” for example. Pinging one’s cell phone can automatically reveal not only the person’s whereabouts, but their movements over time. Is this information discoverable by police without a warrant? According to one federal appellate court, the answer is yes – given certain conditions are present at the time of the search.

In August, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that police can conduct a warrantless investigation by “pinging” a cell phone to determine a suspect’s whereabouts – provided the circumstances are “exigent” in nature and there would be no time to get a search warrant. In this case, the individual was suspected in a drug-trafficking ring and was the main person of interest in the murder of a Vermont woman. The victim had implicated the suspect weeks earlier following her own drug-related arrest, and was killed execution-style with a gunshot to the back of the head. As a result, police asked Sprint Wireless to “ping” the suspect’s phone to ascertain his whereabouts, which lead to his swift arrest.

On appeal, the defendant challenged the warrantless use of “pinging” technology without a warrant. In sum, the Court held that the emergency circumstances of the situation trumped the need to get a warrant, which would have delayed officers for hours.

Contact an experienced criminal defense attorney today!

If you would like to discuss your pending criminal charges, please contact a defense attorney right away at Ianniello & Anderson: 518-350-7755.


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