Are Police Allowed to Track Your Cell Phone in Utah?

As cell phones have become an indispensable part of everyday life, new questions surrounding our digital privacy have emerged. One of the standard features of today’s smartphones is a location tracking device that can be used to pinpoint your location in apps, especially GPS navigation apps that many people use for directions. One of the downsides of this technology, however, is that it gives the cell phone company the ability to track your movements anytime your phone is on your person. This has led to law enforcement agencies attempting to access this location information in order to track the movements of those suspected of criminal activity. In this article, our skilled Salt Lake City criminal defense lawyer at Overson & Bugden explains when and how the police are able to track your cell phone, and what you can do to fight back against illegal use of this technology to obtain evidence against you.

How Cell Phone Tracking Works in Utah

When your cell phone is on, it is constantly sending “pings” to local cell phone towers as you move around. There are hundreds of thousands of such towers throughout the United States, and so following this trail of pings can give you a pretty good idea of where a person is and where they are going. The cell phone companies use this information to see where more towers are needed and to improve service throughout the country.

For a while, police officers were accessing this location information without a warrant by making requests of the cell phone service provider company to turn this information over. Under the “third-party doctrine” established by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1970s, police were able to legally access any information that you had turned over to a third-party such as your service provider by signing a contract allowing them to access your data.

However, this changed with regards to tracking the location of a cell phone when the Supreme Court handed down a new ruling in 2018. The Court ruled in that case that accessing someone’s location data via their cell phone is a search under the Fourth Amendment and thus the police must obtain a valid search warrant to obtain your location information from a third-party unless exigent circumstances are present.

Exigent circumstances are limited in this era where a warrant can be obtained through a quick phone call and a follow-up email. The police would have to show that they had reason to believe irreparable harm would occur if they had taken the time to follow the normal warrant procedure. For example, if a child has been kidnapped and the suspect has made a threat to kill the child, it may be reasonable for the police to bypass the warrant procedure to get immediate access to the location of the kidnapper in order to stop a potential murder from occurring.

On another note, police can also use what is known as a “stingray device” to impersonate cell phone towers and have the pings from your phone sent to their device instead. Under a separate 2019 Utah law, the police are also required to obtain a search warrant before using a stingray or a similar device to track your location.

How a Warrant is Obtained in Utah

As described above, in a typical case the police are going to need a warrant in order to track your cell phone. The process for obtaining such a warrant is substantially similar to the process for obtaining a warrant to search your home or vehicle. The investigating officer will make a warrant application containing a plethora of information. Some of the information that is required includes the officer’s name, title, and associated police department, the name and address of the person whose cell phone is to be tracked, the reason that the officer believes tracking this person’s movements is necessary to uncovering or proving a crime, and the length of time for which the permission to track the individual is being requested.

A judge will review the application and any associated testimony and decide if probable cause exists to believe that issuing the warrant will produce relevant evidence of a crime. If the warrant is issued, the judge will limit its scope and include an expiration date. Once the warrant has expired, the police must cease their tracking of the individual’s phone until such time as they can make an application for reauthorization with the judge.

How to Fight against Illegal Tracking of Your Cell Phone in Utah

Many times the police will not go through the proper warrant process before accessing your location information and tracking your phone. They will often try to justify these warrantless searches by claiming exigent circumstances existed when they did not. Other times they might get a warrant based on false information, not follow the proper procedures for obtaining a warrant, or go beyond the scope or the expiration date of a validly issued warrant.

In any of these cases, a skilled search and seizure defense lawyer in Salt Lake City like those at Overson & Bugden can fight to exclude any evidence obtained through an illegal search by filing what is known as a motion to suppress evidence. If this motion is granted by the judge, whatever evidence the police compiled as a result of the illegal tracking of your phone cannot be used against you in any future criminal proceedings.

If You are Concerned about Your Cell Phone Being Tracked by the Police, Call Our Experienced Criminal Defense Attorneys Today

Tracking your cell phone’s location, except in the cases of extreme, exigent circumstances, requires the police to obtain a warrant. However, it is often the case that police officers will ignore this requirement and simply hope that you do not know the law and do not have a competent attorney to challenge their authority. This is why it is vital to retain a skilled Utah criminal defense attorney like those at Overson & Bugden if you believe you have been the subject of an illegal search, including illegal tracking of your movements. We will work to suppress any evidence obtained outside of the proper channels. Call our firm today at (801) 758-2287 for a free consultation.