The Supreme Judicial Court ruled today that police cannot obtain location data kept by wireless providers without a search warrant.
In a split decision, the state's highest court said that while federal law allows law-enforcement officers to get a customer's "cell site location information" through a court order, Massachusetts law requires them to show they have probable cause to believe the information is directly related to a crime - a higher legal standard - under the privacy limits of Article 14 of the state constitution.
The ruling comes in the case of Shabazz Augustine of Dorchester, arrested in 2011 on charges he killed his former girlfriend, Julaine Jules, whose body was found in the Charles River in 2004 after, officials charge, he killed her in his Dorchester home.
State Police investigating the case had gotten a court order to get Sprint to hand over the location data for his phone for the two-week period around the time Jules disappeared. The trial judge in Augustine's case agreed with him that because police did not get a search warrant for the records, the information should be tossed as evidence.
The ruling is not necessarily a victory for Augustine: The court actually vacated the judge's decision to quash the records and ordered a new hearing to determine whether the troopers actually met the probable-cause standard in their initial request for them; if the judge determines they did, the records could still be used against him.
However, the ruling breaks new ground for future cases in setting a higher standard for such telephone metadata - the sort of records the NSA routinely collects.
Although some federal courts have ruled location data constitute "third-party records" for which a search warrant isn't needed, because it is not actually held by the person under invesitation, the SJC said that in Massachusetts, the stricter Article 14 applies. The court noted we live in an age in which cell phones have become so indespensible to so many people, "almost permanent attachments to their bodies," that while they don't control the records, they are as much as part of their privacy as papers they have in their pocket.
As anyone knows who has walked down the street or taken public transportation in a city like Boston, many if not most of one's fellow pedestrians or travelers are constantly using their cellular telephones as they walk or ride--as the facts of this case appear to illustrate. As people do so, they are constantly connecting to cell sites, and those connections are recorded as CSLI by their cellular service providers.
Turning, then, to the nature or function of CSLI, there is no question that it tracks the location of a cellular telephone user, which is the reason the Commonwealth is interested in obtaining it. Clearly, tracking a person's movements implicates privacy concerns.