Police Need Warrant For Cell Phone Data – State v. Thomas W. Earls (A-53-11) NJ Supreme Court

State v. Thomas W. Earls (A-53-11) NJ Supreme Court

On July 18, 2013 the New Jersey Supreme Court reversed the conviction of Thomas W. Earls because police needed a warrant to obtain his location via his cell phone. On January 26, 2006, the police filed a complaint against the defendant for receiving stolen property and obtained an arrest warrant. After contacting the cell phone carrier that police believed the defendant to be using, they traced him to Howell, NJ where his car was identified at a motel where police apprehended him and the stolen property. The defendant was indicted on several charges, third-degree burglary, third-degree theft, and third degree receiving stolen property. The defendant’s motion to suppress was denied by the trial court, although the trial court believed the police should have gotten the warrant for the cell phone carrier, the evidence was admitted under the emergency aid exception.

On appeal to the Appellate Division, the trial court was affirmed but not pursuant to the emergency exception for warrantless search and seizure. The Appellate Division found that the defendant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy and that evidence was lawfully seized because it was in plain view. The New Jersey Supreme Court rejects both the trial court and the Appellate Division in reversing the defendant’s conviction. When individuals provide their personal information to third-party providers such as cell phone carriers, they are not anticipating that their private information is shared with the government. Further the right to privacy provided by the New Jersey Constitution, Article I, Paragraph 7, provides greater protection than the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. In reversing, the Appellate Division, the Supreme Court is clear, the plain view doctrine is not applicable because police arrived at the motel based on the warrantless phone data they received from the phone carrier.

The NJ Supreme Court’s ruling does not prevent police from being able to access cell phone data, only that police must have a properly authorized search warrant or a recognized warrantless exception. Federal law only requires that the information revealed could be obtained through visual surveillance. See U.S. v. Karo, 468 U.S. 705 (1984). See U.S. v. Jones, 565 U.S. ___, 132 S. Ct. 945 (2012). The NJ Supreme Court makes no distinction between private and public realms because technology can now be intrusive, continuous and provide an accurate location.

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