Our cell phones have become our link to the outside world. One essential feature of most “smart phones” is a GPS system which allows us to find where we want to go. But these same phones emit a signal which allows us to be found – a kind of “GPS in reverse.”
Law enforcement is now using this “GPS in reverse” to investigate drug cases by “pinging” the cell phones of suspected drug dealers and their co-conspirators, allowing them to locate and even track these people. Pinging is done by the wireless provider, such as AT&T or Verizon. After receiving a request, the provider sends a signal, i.e., a “ping,” to the phone requesting its GPS coordinates, and in turn informs law enforcement of the last tower from which the phone signaled. The key fact is that even if the suspect is not using his personal phone, i.e., he has a disposable or second phone, the phone is still emitting a signal that can be tracked.
But can law enforcement have a wireless provider “ping” a suspect’s cell phone under the Fourth Amendment? A Sixth Circuit case last year said yes. In United States v. Skinner (2012), Melvin Skinner was suspected of transporting large quantities of drugs across state lines. DEA agents continually “pinged” Skinner’s pre-paid phone, locating him at an Arizona mobile home where police found 1100 pounds of marijuana. Skinner argued this evidence should be suppressed. The court disagreed, and held that using a cell phone’s GPS capabilities to track the suspect’s location did not violate the Fourth Amendment. Skinner was convicted and sentenced to 235 months of imprisonment.
The court determined that pinging Skinner’s cell phone wasn’t a search because Skinner didn’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy. First, Skinner had voluntarily purchased and used pre-paid phones. He was also traveling public roads where anyone could see each movement he made. Second, the DEA agents never “physically intruded on his private property.” For example, the agents didn’t take Skinner’s phone and literally install a tracking device. Finally, agents only pinged the phone for a short period of time – 3 days. The court wrote, “When criminals use modern technological devices to carry out criminal acts and to reduce to the possibility of detection, they can hardly complain when the police take advantage of the inherent characteristics of those very devices to catch them.”
Advances in technology mean new developments in the ever-changing Fourth Amendment. Concerns exist to the limits of law enforcement use of said technology, which create privacy concerns for all of us, and not just the criminal suspect.