Can Utah Police Track Your Cell Phone Without a Warrant?

Today’s smartphones have lots of different functions, from making calls, to text messaging, to using apps, to browsing the internet. One of the functions that can be both a blessing and a curse is the GPS locator found on smartphones. It may assist you in finding your way around a new town and allow apps to pinpoint your location to help you locate services, but it also opens up the possibility that hackers could be tracking your every move. As law enforcement agencies have become more technologically savvy, they have begun to employ cell phone tracking as a way to pinpoint the location of suspects of possible crimes. Below, our experienced Salt Lake City criminal defense lawyers at Overson & Bugden explain when and how the police must obtain a warrant to track your cell phone.

Tracking a Suspect’s Cell Phone in Utah

As you move around from area to area, your cell phone “pings” each local cell tower and gives the cell phone service provider an indication of where you are located. This information is used by the cell phone companies to track which areas have high volume usage and improve service. However, the same information can also be harnessed by the police in order to track the movements of someone they believe to be involved in criminal activity.

Police can access this information in one of two ways. The first is simply requesting the information regarding your device from the cell phone company. The second involves what is known as a “stingray” device. The stingray device fools phones into thinking it is one of the cell towers that they ping their location to. Instead, this information is going straight to the police.

Whether they use the stingray device or obtain the information from the cell phone service providers, the police typically need a warrant to access your cell phone tracking information. In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a person’s location data is protected under the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. Obtaining someone’s location information through the cell phone carrier or through the officers’ own means is, in fact, engaging in a search, the court held. Thus, a search warrant is required.

There are exceptions to this rule for situations involving “exigent circumstances.” Exigent circumstances are scenarios where the particulars of the situation indicate that irreparable harm could be done between the time it takes to apply for a warrant and the time one is granted. For example, if there is an active kidnapping, or the police believe the person whose phone they want to track is on his way to kill someone, exigent circumstances may apply and a warrant may not be required.

How a Warrant is Obtained in Utah

In order to obtain a search warrant to track someone’s cell phone, an investigating officer must make an application for such a warrant and present it to a judge who will rule on its merits. The application will contain all the information related to the reasons the warrant is sought. It will name the officer seeking the warrant, the individual whose information the officer wishes to track, and the reasons that the officer believes that tracking this individual’s movement by way of their cell phone data will assist is solving or preventing a crime.

The judge will consider all the evidence in the application and make a ruling based on whether or not probable cause exists to believe that tracking the phone will turn up evidence of a crime. If the judge decides to issue a warrant, the warrant will often be limited in scope and length. For example, the warrant may only allow for the individual’s movements to be tracked for 10 days. If the 10 days pass, the tracking is no longer legal unless the officers make an application to renew the warrant and this application is granted by the judge.

Fighting Illegal Tracking of Your Cell Phone by Utah Police Officers

Many times, officers will fail to comply with the requirements to get a warrant to track your movements through your phone in hopes that you do not know the law well enough to challenge their authority. They may claim that exigent circumstances existed that made it necessary for them to act quickly without a warrant. This is where the services of a skilled Salt Lake City search and seizure defense attorney like those at Overson & Bugden can help protect your rights.

If the officers fail to get a warrant, claim exigent circumstances when none existed, or go outside the scope of the warrant granted to them, a lawyer can file what is knows as a motion to suppress. A motion to suppress is argued before a judge, and the defense will ask the judge to suppress any evidence obtained as a result of an illegal search procedure. Under the “fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine,” any evidence that the police came upon as a result of a warrantless search or a search where the warrant was defective cannot be used against you in future criminal proceedings. As such, if the police fail to get a warrant before tracking your phone to the location of a crime, they will not be able to introduce this tracking as evidence in court.

Call Our Experienced Utah Criminal Defense Lawyers About Warrantless Tracking of Your Cell Phone Location

Just because the police are not legally permitted to do something, this does not mean they will not try to do it anyway. This is often the case when it comes to obtaining your digital data like cell phone tracking information. For many years before the law caught up with the technology, officers were permitted to use cell phone tracking however they wished, and many of them have not adjusted their tactics now that they law has changed. At Overson & Bugden, our Riverton City criminal defense lawyers know how to protect your digital privacy from warrantless encroachment and to prevent any evidence illegally obtained from being used against you in court. For a free consultation, call us today at (801) 758-2287.