SCOTUS cell phone data ruling will have impact on search and rescue calls
A U.S. Supreme Court ruling made last week carries significant implications for law enforcement and how they use cell phone location data, adding warrant requirements to agencies seeking to obtain cellphone location data from third parties such as wireless carriers.
But the ruling impacts more than just investigations related to violent crimes, it will also impact the way local law enforcement conducts searches for missing persons, suicidal subjects and those who get lost in the area’s mountains.
“The requirement could slow things significantly,” said Lt. Dan Mayer with the Grand County Sheriff’s Office, who was aware of the court’s ruling.
The ruling issued Friday pertained to a specific case from the Detroit area wherein prosecutors relied upon cell phone location data obtained without a warrant to convict Timothy Carpenter on charges related to several armed robberies.
“We decline to grant the state unrestricted access to a wireless carrier’s database of physical location information,” Chief Justice John Roberts stated in his majority opinion, citing both the Fourth Amendment and general expectations of privacy.
Law enforcement is required to obtain a warrant before getting a ping on a person’s cellular phone, but that’s not the case when the life and health of an individual is in danger, according to Mayer. In those situations, a warrant doesn’t come first but is still required.
“Basically we would get a retroactive warrant,” he explained. “We can get a ping, but then we have to go back and do the warrant later.”
Mayer said the time required to obtain a warrant varies depending on multiple factors. The process begins with law enforcement first developing a request for a warrant based on the situation at hand. That paperwork is sent to officials with the district attorney’s office, who reviews the warrant and potentially changes elements within it, before it is sent to a judge. The judge reviews the request and determines whether or not to approve it.
“If everything goes right, it takes an hour to an hour-and-a-half,” Mayer said. “On a weekend we could be looking at three to five hours.”
The new dynamic created by the Supreme Court ruling is the only circumstance Mayer said he could think of where warrants would be applied for retroactively on a regular basis.
“With a lot of our stuff, we get there then back off and get a warrant,” Mayer said. “It slows the process down significantly, but we have time.” In the case of search and rescues or searches for suicidal persons, “sometimes we don’t have time,” he added.
Greg Foley, spokesperson for Grand County Search and Rescue, said he does not expect the ruling to significantly impact how search and rescue operates. Foley explained that search and rescue officials were not previously able to access cell phone location data independently and relied upon the sheriff’s office for such information.
Local officials most recently used pings of a cell phone earlier this month in an attempt to locate a Dillon man who was reported missing in southeastern Grand County. Pings of the man’s phone indicated he was in the area of Winter Park Resort. His body was later located less than one mile from the top of Berthoud Pass.
Another man, 21-year-old Spencer Heninger, went missing in January during a large winter storm in Granby. Authorities pinged his phone and received locations in the Granby and Winter Park areas, leading them to believe the phone was no longer with him and in another individual’s vehicle. Heninger was found dead several days after the search began, not far from his home in Granby, resulting from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
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