NJ Supreme Court: Police Need Warrants to Track Cell Phones

In a 7-0 decision released today, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that the State Constitution affords individuals a reasonable expectation of privacy in the location of their cellular telephones.

The ruling came by way of an appeal by Defendant, Thomas Earls, who was indicted in 2006 by a Monmouth County Grand Jury on charges of Burglary, a crime of the Third Degree, and Theft, a crime of the Third Degree, among others. The charges were based, in large part, on information provided by Defendant’s cell phone carrier about the location of the cell phone.

At the Trial Division, Defendant filed a Motion to Suppress Evidence, claiming that police should have obtained a warrant before tracking him via his cell phone. The Trial Division agreed with the proposition, but nevertheless admitted the evidence under the “emergency aid” exception to the warrant requirement. Defendant ultimately pled guilty, but reserved his right to appeal the suppression issue. Thereafter, at the Appellate Division, it was held that Defendant did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the location of his cell phone.

According to the Supreme Court’s ruling, Defendant’s conviction is reversed and his matter remanded. Under this new rule of law, police must now obtain a warrant upon a showing of probable cause (or qualify for an exception to the warrant requirement) before obtaining tracking information through the use of a cell phone.

The Supreme Court highlighted that Article I, Paragraph 7 of the New Jersey Constitution affords greater protection to individuals than the Fourth Amendment, going on to state that using a cell phone to obtain the location of its owner is akin to using a tracking device, and can function as a substitute for 24/7 surveillance without police having to confront the limits of their resources. Most importantly, it involves a degree of intrusion that a reasonable person would not anticipate. Details about the location of a cell phone can provide an intimate picture of one’s daily life and reveal not just where people go – doctors, religious services, stores, etc. – but also with whom they choose to affiliate themselves. The result is a blurred line between public and private areas because cell phones emit signals from both.

What is clear – the Supreme Court held – is that cell phones are not meant to serve as tracking devices. No one buys a cell phone with the intention of sharing detailed information regarding their whereabouts with the police.

The decision, which will be applied proactively, is certainly a step in the direction to keep our laws up-to-date with ever-evolving technology.

To read the decision in its entirety, click here.