Florida high court puts limits on phone tracking

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In a sweeping ruling, Florida’s highest court said Thursday that police in the state have no right to use a cellphone to track someone’s movements without a warrant.

The state Supreme Court in a 5-2 decision ruled that Broward County Sheriff’s Office had no right to stop and arrest Shawn Tracey for possession of more than 400 grams of cocaine.

Detectives had gotten a tip from that Tracey was involved in moving cocaine from Broward over to Cape Coral on the state’s West Coast where he lived. But the warrant they had obtained only allowed them to monitor the phone calls in and out on Tracey’s cellphone.

Authorities, however, also kept track of Tracey’s movement by getting real time updates of his location from his phone. They stopped him shortly after he left a house and discovered a brick of cocaine and $23,000 in cash in the car he was driving.

Tracey’s lawyers argued that the evidence in the case should be suppressed because of the way police tracked Tracey. But their motions were denied and Tracey remains in prison.

And a majority of justices agreed, saying that in a day when cellphones have become a routine way of life, Floridians should expect a certain level of privacy in how they use them. The ruling also stated it was unreasonable to require people to turn off their phones just to make sure their movements are not being tracked.

“Requiring a cellphone user to turn off the cellphone just to assure privacy from governmental intrusion that can reveal a detailed and intimate picture of the user’s life places an unreasonable burden on the user to forego necessary use of his cellphone, a device now considered essential,” wrote Chief Justice Jorge Labarga.

The American Civil Liberties Union and defense attorneys involved in similar cases applauded the ruling saying there is evidence that police across the state are using technology to track people.

“This is a big victory for privacy in Florida,” said ACLU of Florida staff attorney Benjamin Stevenson. “Technology is changing all the time, but just because a technology you own is newer than the Constitution’s protections doesn’t mean it is exempt from them. Police all over the state should now put an end to warrantless cellphone surveillance once and for all.”

A spokesman for Attorney General Pam Bondi, whose office defended the conviction, said they were “reviewing the ruling.”

Two justices – Charles Canady and Ricky Polston- dissented from the ruling. Canady wrote in his dissent that most people know how cellphones work and they communicate with a cellphone tower that records their location.

Republished with permission of the Associated Press.