Prosecutors do not need a warrant to compel a cellular phone service provider to turn over data about call location, a federal judge in Washington said in a ruling unsealed Wednesday.
The ruling (PDF) examines the government’s attempt to get data from the undisclosed service provider amid a U.S. Attorney’s Office investigation of an armed robbery of an armored truck.
Chief Judge Royce Lamberth of U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia redacted the name of the service provider, the target phone number and the name of its alleged user.
Lamberth ruled in part for prosecutors, reviving the government’s push to obtain cell phone data. The judge reversed a magistrate judge’s ruling from August.
But Lamberth did not rubberstamp the government’s request, submitted under the Stored Communications Act. Instead, he said prosecutors must present additional evidence to prove the requested data is material to the armed robbery investigation. The burden is lower than the one a warrant would require.
The dispute gave the court the opportunity to explore the scope of a controversial Washington federal appeals court ruling about the propriety of warrantless GPS surveillance.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled last year that police must first obtain a warrant before attaching a global positing system device to a vehicle to track its movement.
The divided appeals court vacated the life sentence of a man named Antoine Jones, convicted for his alleged role in a drug trafficking conspiracy. The D.C. Circuit panel majority said the authorities violated Jones privacy rights.
The Justice Department, however, successfully convinced the U.S. Supreme Court to review the Jones case. Oral argument in U.S. v. Jones is scheduled for Nov. 8.
In ruling against the government in the armed robbery matter, Magistrate Judge John Facciola said the D.C. Circuit’s decision in Jones required the government to obtain a warrant to compel the disclosure of the requested cellular data.
Lamberth said that Facciola concluded that cell phone data—including the location of the tower that transmitted a call—is “tantamount to the sort of continuous GPS surveillance” at issue in the GPS case.
A “reasonable cellular phone customer presumably realizes that his calls are all transmitted by nearby cell-site towers, and that cellular phone companies have access to and likely store data regarding the cell-site towers used to place a customer’s calls,” Lamberth said.
Lamberth said a person’s “decision to place a cellular phone call and thus provide information regarding his location to the phone company thus defeats an individual’s privacy interest in that information.”
The disclosure to prosecutors of a limited number of specific calls “does not paint such a detailed portrait of an individual’s life,” the judge said.
The information the government wants, Lamberth said, reveals only an approximate position from the spot the person made the phone call. The data, the judge said, does not indicate how long a person remained in any given position.
“Like a blank connect-the-dot image, historical (cell site location information) comprises an incomplete and scattershot image of an individual’s travels” and lacks in sufficient detail to provide an intimate image of a person’s affairs.
Beyond the legal issues in the dispute, the case was thorny for another reason: prosecutors presented Lamberth wrong information when the government first challenged Facciola’s order.
In its first request for review, prosecutors provided to Lamberth a “wholly erroneous” description of the facts, the judge said. Prosecutors, for instance, misidentified the cellular service provider and the subject telephone number.
But Lamberth reversed Facciola even though Lamberth did not immediately recognize the facts in front of Lamberth did not match up to what Facciola had ruled on. Lamberth said he “found no reason to treat with skepticism” the facts the government presented.
“Instead, the court accepted the government’s statement of facts at face value—something this court will not do in the future,” Lamberth said. He said that in subsequent cases he will cross check the government’s motion with the original order and other relevant documents.
Prosecutors later explained how they pitched the wrong information to Lamberth. The government provided the court an amended request that asked the court to reverse Facciola.
In court papers, an unidentified assistant U.S. attorney pointed to medical leave as the cause for the miscommunication. The government called the error inadvertent and said the U.S. Attorney’s Office was taking steps to address the problem.