Federal agents acted in good faith in relying on court orders and not a warrant to obtain cell phone tower data associated with the target of a drug trafficking probe, a federal judge in Washington said in a ruling that marked a win for the U.S. Justice Department.
The judge, Ellen Segal Huvelle of Washington federal district court, skirted issuing a ruling on the underlying debate playing out in courts across the country: whether the authorities should be required, under the Fourth Amendment, to first get a warrant to access the location information that mobile phones transmit to towers.
Huvelle said in her ruling that she "need not resolve this vexing question of Fourth Amendment jurisprudence, since it concludes that the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule applies."
Numerous judges, Huvelle said, have allowed agents to review historical cell-site data via a court order and not a warrant. In the case against Antoine Jones, authorities relied on court orders in 2005 to retrieve prospective data. At the time, Huvelle said, "the state of the law was completely uncharted."
"Given the unsettled nature of the law in 2005, which has remained the case even up to the present, it was reasonable for them to believe that the Fourth Amendment was not implicated," Huvelle said in her decision.
The U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year voided Jones' conviction and life sentence, saying that the authorities violated his rights by secretly tracking him via a Global Positioning System device attached to his vehicle. The high court didn't go so far as to say a warrant is required for such tracking.
With the GPS data, prosecutors were able to link Jones to a house in Maryland where the authorities said they found $850,000 in cash and nearly 100 kilograms of cocaine.
The government, unable to tell jurors about the GPS info after the Supreme Court ruling, now wants to use cell tower location information to tie Jones, who was convicted in 2008, to the same stash house.
Jones' defense lawyers argued that the prosecution shouldn't be permitted to use the cell tower info without a warrant establishing sufficient cause that a crime has been committed. The privacy advocate the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Jones.
Prosecutors said in response that mobile phone subscribers have no privacy expectation in tower data kept by a third-party company.
Challenging the good-faith exception, Jones' attorneys said a magistrate judge in Washington acted "merely as a rubber stamp for law enforcement" when he granted a court order giving agents access to tower data without a warrant.
The judge, John Facciola, later changed his position and started denying similar warrantless requests for prospective cell site information. Huvelle defended Facciola. That a judge reconsiders an issue at a later date, Huvelle said, doesn't mean the judge was acting as a "rubber stamp" in in the first place. Huvelle said "there is no evidence in the record to support such a frivolous contention."
Ultimately, Huvelle noted, the Supreme Court may one day take up the so-called "third-party doctrine" when it comes to the Fourth Amendment and privacy.
Indeed, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said in the Jones opinion in January that "it may be necessary to reconsider the premise that an individual has no reasonable expectation of privacy in information voluntarily disclosed to third parties."
Jones, who remains in federal custody, is scheduled to stand trial in January. Huvelle is now mulling whether to allow the drug evidence that the authorities obtained from the search of the Maryland house. She heard testimony last week but didn't immediately rule.