Can Salt Lake City Police Track Your Cell Phone Without a Warrant?

Today’s cellphones are much more than just a phone. We can use them for instant communication like text messages and emails, to browse on the internet, to make purchases, and to guide us to where we need to be. While GPS services like Apple Maps have made it easier to navigate around a strange city or plan out a road trip, they have also made it easier for hackers to track you by way of your cell phone. Increasingly, police officers have also begun to use this technology as a way to track those they suspect have committed a crime. Below, our experienced Salt Lake City criminal defense lawyer at Overson & Bugden walks you through when and how Salt Lake City police are permitted to track your cell phone’s location.

How a Cell Phone is Tracked in Salt Lake City

As you move around, whenever you carry your cell phone with you, so long as the phone is on, it is transmitting signals or “pings” to the local cell towers. The cell phone service providers use this information to see which areas have the most usage and where improvements to their service can and should be made. However, the police may request the information from the provider company and then use this information to track your movements. Because there are hundreds of thousands of cell towers throughout the country, the list of which towers your phone has pinged gives the cell phone company a pretty good idea of where you have been and where you are going.

Police can also use their own technology to impersonate or spoof cell phone towers and trick your phone into sending its location to their device. One commonly used device is known as a “stingray.” By setting up a stingray in an area where they suspect a person of interest may be, the police can confirm the individual’s exact whereabouts, assuming they are in continuous possession of their phone as most of us are in this day and age.

Before 2018, the rules were extremely unclear regarding whether or not the police needed a warrant to get your location information from the cell phone companies or to use a stingray device to impersonate a cell tower. In 2018, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it is in fact necessary to obtain a search warrant before tracking a person’s location through their cell phone. This action, they held, constitutes a search under the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. As such, it is now generally required that the police have a warrant before they track your phone.

There are some exceptions where a warrant may not be necessary for the information to be tracked. These exceptions occur in situations that amount to “exigent circumstances” where the police may have a necessity to find a person immediately or harm could be caused. There must be some indication that irreparable harm would be done if the time is taken to go through the proper warrant process. For example, if there is a strong indication that the individual to be tracked is on their way to commit a murder in Salt Lake City, exigent circumstances may make it necessary for their location to be obtained immediately so the officers can attempt to stop this person before the murder occurs.

How is a Warrant Obtained in Salt Lake City

Getting a warrant to track a person’s cell phone location is done through a process similar to the one for getting a warrant to search a person’s home or car. The investigating officer who believes the tracking is necessary must make an application for a warrant with the courts. In the application, the officer will have to provide a series of specific information such as their name, rank, and where they work, the name of the person who they want to track, why they believe this person’s movements being tracked will lead to evidence of a crime, and how long and how often they want to track their movements.

The judge will review the application and listen to any supporting testimony and then decide whether or not they believe the application demonstrates that probable causes exists that tracking this person’s phone will help solve a crime. If the judge grants a warrant, it will typically not be open-ended but rather limited in scope and length. Once a warrant expires, the surveillance cannot continue unless the officers successfully petition the judge for a renewal.

How to Fight Illegal Tracking of Your Cell Phone in Salt Lake City

Sometimes, officers will not go through the proper channels to get a warrant before beginning to track your cell phone. They will often try to use the “exigent circumstances” excuse even where no exigent circumstances apply. A skilled Salt Lake City search and seizure defense attorney like those at Overson & Bugden can fight a warrantless search, or one backed by a baseless warrant, by filing what is known as a motion to suppress evidence.

A motion to suppress evidence is based on the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine, which states that any evidence found as a result of an illegal search is tainted, like the fruit of a poisonous tree, and cannot be used against you at trial. An experienced Utah criminal defense attorney can also fight to get the evidence excluded if a valid warrant was issued, but the officers went outside the scope of that warrant with their actions or continued their surveillance after the warrant had expired.

Call Our Salt Lake City Criminal Defense Lawyer Today About Illegal Tracking of Your Cell Phone

For all the convenience provided by modern smartphones, they can also cause massive headaches for those concerned with digital privacy. No one likes the thought that by using their cell phone, which has become indispensable in modern life, they are allowing some far-off person to track their every move. At Overson & Bugden, our experienced Riverton, UT criminal defense attorneys have fought successfully for years to exclude evidence of crimes based on warrantless searches or overbroad use of surveillance technology. We will ensure that your privacy rights are respected by the authorities. For a free consultation, call us today at (801) 758-2287.