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Court Backs Use Of Cell Phone Records To Track Suspect

Ray Hollister

In a case that raised high-tech privacy issues, a federal appeals court Tuesday approved prosecutors' use of cell-phone records from a 67-day period to help map the whereabouts of a suspect in a South Florida armed-robbery spree.

The full 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the conviction of Quartavious Davis on a variety of charges, including a conspiracy charge, in seven armed robberies during a two-month period in 2010. A judge wrote that Davis and his accomplices, "bearing an array of firearms, terrorized a wide range of South Florida businesses, including a pizzeria, a gas station, a drugstore, an auto parts store, a beauty salon, a fast food restaurant, and a jewelry store."

But the appeal, which led to a majority opinion, three concurring opinions and a dissenting opinion, focused on constitutional issues in a time when most people carry cell phones and make calls and send text messages with little thought.

Prosecutors got a court order to obtain 67 days worth of Davis' cell-phone records from MetroPCS, showing telephone numbers for each of Davis' calls and information about the cell towers that connected each call. By having the cell-tower information, authorities could determine that the phone was used in the vicinity of robbery sites.

The court order to obtain the records did not require prosecutors to show probable cause and was not a warrant, raising questions about whether Davis' Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures had been violated.

The majority of the Atlanta-based appeals court Tuesday sided with the prosecutors' use of the records. The opinions Tuesday did not detail the locations of all of the robberies, though they indicate the incidents were in Miami and Weston.

"The government's obtaining MetroPCS records, showing historical cell tower locations, did not involve a physical intrusion on private property or a search at all,'' said the majority opinion, written by Judge Frank Hull. "The records belonged to a private company, not Davis. The records were obtained through a court order authorized by a federal statute, not by means of governmental trespass. MetroPCS, not the government, built and controlled the electronic mechanism (the cell towers) and collected its cell tower data for legitimate business purposes."

But in a dissenting opinion, Judge Beverly Martin wrote that a warrant should be obtained for such records and warned about potential far-reaching implications of the case. Martin wrote that the same logic could apply to information about such things as email accounts and search-engine histories.

"In short, I believe that Mr. Davis — like any other person interacting in today's digital world — quite reasonably had a subjective expectation that his movements about town would be kept private,'' Martin wrote in a dissent joined by Judge Jill Pryor. "The more important and more difficult question we must consider is whether Mr. Davis's expectation of privacy is one society is objectively prepared to recognize as reasonable. I believe the answer is yes."

Jim Saunders is the Executive Editor of The News Service Of Florida.