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Appeals court rules authorities must obtain search warrant to obtain cellphone location data

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RICHMOND, Virginia — Police must get a search warrant to obtain records about cellphone locations in criminal investigations, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.

The American Civil Liberties Union said the decision by a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals conflicts with two other federal appeals court rulings and increases the possibility that the U.S. Supreme Court will take up the issue. Attorneys last week asked the Supreme Court to review an appeals court ruling in a Florida case that said search warrants are not required.

The case in the Richmond-based appeals court involved two men who were convicted of a series of armed robberies in the Baltimore area. The court said authorities who obtained cellphone tower records tracking the suspects' movements without a warrant violated the U.S. Constitution's prohibition against unreasonable searches.

"Today's opinion is a full-throated defense of Fourth Amendment privacy rights in the digital age," said Nathan Freed Wessler, an attorney with the ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project.

The ACLU had filed a friend-of-the-court brief agreeing with the Maryland men that investigators improperly obtained seven months of location information from their cellphone service providers.

The court upheld the convictions because the government relied in good faith on court orders seeking the data, but held that search warrants must be obtained in future investigations.

"Cellphone users have an objectively reasonable expectation of privacy in this information," Judge Andre Davis wrote in the majority opinion.

Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote in a dissenting opinion that the Supreme Court has long held that a person has no expectation of privacy in information voluntarily turned over to a third party.

"The government did not surreptitiously view, listen to, record, or in any other way engage in direct surveillance of Defendants to obtain this information," she wrote.

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