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Cell Data Being Used As A Way to "Track" Suspects

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held the "pinging" technology or the mining of cell data was not in violation of the Warrant Clause of the 4th Amendment.


In States v. Skinner, 09-6497, 2012 WL 3289801 (6th Cir. August 14, 2012), the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals held that the utilization of the "cell tower" data to track a "pay-as-you-go" mobile phone was not in violation of the Warrant Clause of the 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This case appears to be squarely at odds with the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in States v. Jones (GPS tracking device installed on suspect's car).

In Jones, the Supreme Court, held that the government's installation of a GPS device on a suspect's vehicle to track its location was in violation of the Warrant Clause in the Fourth Amendment. In Skinner, the Court of Appeals (one court lower than the Supreme Court) held that the suspect did not have reasonable expectation of privacy in the geo-location data produced by the mobile phone that became available to law enforcement offices from the cell phone carrier's network.


A "ping" typically refers to a cell phone's connecting link with the closest cell tower. When someone places a call, text, email or other signal through the device, it sends a locational point to the tower for the data to be transmitted. If a cell phone is "on," regardless of whether it is making or receiving messages or calls, the phone may also periodically transmit a signal to "register" with the cellular network. The only way to avoid the "ping" is to either keep the phone off or to switch between phones (never using the same phone more than once) and making sure that the SIM cards are not the same. The SIM card is the "brain" of the phone that transmits the ping that identifies the phone and the potential user.

There is a possibility that this decision may be overruled, given the decision in Skinner and other decisional law that is not directly on point, but nevertheless discusses the Fourth Amendment protections afforded to individuals in relation to technological advancements. You may contact Shaffer & Engle Law Offices, LLC (717) 268-4287.