Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada reported that police agencies sometimes monitor the location and communications of civilians through their cell phones. After this announcement, ACLU affiliates across the nation began their own investigations, reporting that “the overwhelming majority of law enforcement agencies that responded engage in at least some cellphone tracking.”
Cell phone tracking in itself is not illegal for authorities to engage in. The Reno City Attorney’s office said in a letter, for example, “Generally the practice of the Reno Police Department is to utilize exact cell phone location information from cell phone companies only in circumstances that constitute an emergency such as possible physical harm, missing person, death to an individual or felony warrant.”
But in order to legally engage in the practice of tracking cell phones, it has been argued that authorities must first present probable cause to a judge who may grant a warrant for the search to be made. However, a survey of public records and court documents showed that authorities do not always request the approval of a judge before tracking cell phones.
This has led critics to point to the fourth amendment, which guarantees the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” The ACLU stated that “The government should have to obtain a warrant based upon probable cause before tracking cell phones. That is what is necessary to protect Americans’ privacy, and it is also what is required under the Constitution.”
Deputy Chief Dave Evans of the Reno Police Department argues that there are no recorded cases during which their office has ever utilized cell phone tracking without a court order, or issuing an administrative subpoena to cell phone companies. According to Evans, an administrative subpoena can be issued to cell phone companies to demand the location of a cell phone, usually in emergency situations. However, more detailed information, he said, requires a court order.
Even if the Reno Police Department is in the clear, that doesn’t mean that the rest of the country is. The ACLU purports that, while the government’s policies regarding location tracking should be clear and well defined, they are actually in a state of chaos and vary in different towns which follow different rules – or in some cases, no rules at all.