All posts tagged Davis

A few months ago I wrote about (and strongly criticized) the Eleventh Circuit’s decision in United States v. Davis, in which the court held that the government needed to obtain a search warrant before it could access cell tower location information that located the defendant’s cell phone.  Now the Eleventh Circuit, in an en banc decision, has overturned the three-judge panel and held that the third-party doctrine applies to these records; thus, a warrant is not required.


The court began by citing the Fifth Circuit decision which also applied the third party doctrine in deciding this issue.  Then the court applied Smith v. Maryland and found that the Davis case was legally no different from Smith:

For starters, like the bank customer in Miller and the phone customer in Smith, Davis can assert neither ownership nor possession of the third-party’s business records he sought to suppress. Instead, those cell tower records were created by MetroPCS, stored on its own premises, and subject to its control. Cell tower location records do not contain private communications of the subscriber. This type of non-content evidence, lawfully created by a third-party telephone company for legitimate business purposes, does not belong to Davis, even if it concerns him. Like the security camera surveillance images introduced into evidence at his trial, MetroPCS’s cell tower records were not Davis’s to withhold. Those surveillance camera images show Davis’s location at the precise location of the robbery, which is far more than MetroPCS’s cell tower location records show.

The Court not only applies the third party doctrine, it presents a robust defense of the doctrine in this context, harkening back to the Katz test:

As to the subjective expectation of privacy, we agree with the Fifth Circuit that cell users know that they must transmit signals to cell towers within range, that the cell tower functions as the equipment that connects the calls, that users when making or receiving calls are necessarily conveying or exposing to their service provider their general location within that cell tower’s range, and that cell phone companies make records of cell-tower usage. See In re Application (Fifth Circuit), 724 F.3d at 613-14. Users are aware that cell phones do not work when they are outside the range of the provider company’s cell tower network. Id. at 613. Indeed, the fact that Davis registered his cell phone under a fictitious alias tends to demonstrate his understanding that such cell tower location information is collected by MetroPCS and may be used to incriminate him.

Even if Davis had a subjective expectation of privacy, his expectation of privacy, viewed objectively, is not justifiable or reasonable under the particular circumstances of this case. The unreasonableness in society’s eyes dooms Davis’s position under Katz. In Smith, the Supreme Court presumed that phone users knew of uncontroverted and publicly available facts about technologies and practices that the phone company used to connect calls, document charges, and assist in legitimate law-enforcement investigations. See 442 U.S. at 742-43, 99 S. Ct. at 2581. Cell towers and related records are used for all three of those purposes. We find no reason to conclude that cell phone users lack facts about the functions of cell towers or about telephone providers’ recording cell tower usage.

Although the third party doctrine has been routinely criticized, applying it makes sense in this context.  As the court notes, surely every reasonable person knows that the telephone company can track their general location using the person’s cell phone–how else could cell phones function?  And, notwithstanding the famous concurrence in United States v. Jones, a person generally does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in a public place.

The en banc decision also provides an “alternative” justification for its ruling, which is that even if the third party doctrine did not apply, the search was “reasonable” because the intrusion into privacy was minimal, cell tower location information is routinely used by government investigators, Congress has explicitly endorsed this type of investigation in the Stored Communications Act, and the government’s interest in tracking down criminals is “compelling.”  Professor Orin Kerr had a number of withering critique of this alternative justification in his blog post; one of which was that the “reasonableness” test (as opposed to the warrant requirement) should only be applied in non-criminal cases:

A basic summary of the Supreme Court’s cases might run something like this: When the search involves some kind of non-criminal investigation or purpose, the warrant requirement is often suspended. In that non-criminal context, reasonableness instead becomes a general balancing of interests. The Court has been expanding the general balancing cases, most recently in Maryland v. King. But the Katz rule of a warrant by default is still the Supreme Court’s blackletter law for a traditional criminal investigation search.

In this case, the Eleventh Circuit appears to take a different approach. It begins with the Supreme Court’s non-criminal cases and then applies them to the context of a classic criminal investigation. Instead of the Katz rule of a warrant, the court begins with general balancing. It’s important to catch criminals, the court reasons, and the statute has some good protections given that this wasn’t such an invasive practice. So on the whole the government’s conduct based on reasonable suspicion seems reasonable and therefore constitutional.

This alternative holding is a major development, I think. It’s at odds with the usual rule that a criminal search requires a warrant, and instead replaces it with a totality of the circumstances inquiry into whether the criminal search was the kind of thing that we would generally say is good or would generally say is bad. There’s not only no warrant requirement, there’s no probable cause requirement: It’s just a free-floating reasonableness inquiry.

Professor Kerr has a good point here, but he might be fighting a losing battle.  In reality,  the distinction between “criminal searches” and “non-criminal searches” is becoming blurred almost beyond recognition.  Special needs searches have always been evaluated on a “reasonableness” standard, and many of them are nothing but criminal searches thinly masquerading as non-criminal searches (for example, testing for drugs in schools, stopping cars to check for drunk drivers, and searching passengers before they board an airplane).  Most recently, in Maryland v. King, the Supreme Court applied the reasonableness test to DNA swab of arrestees which was used to determine if the arrestee had committed any other crimes was not a “criminal search.”  Applying the reasonableness test to the obtaining of cell phone location data in a bank robbery investigation definitely pushes the envelope even further, but it continues a trend which has been building for a while.

Of course, this aspect of the Davis en banc decision is merely dicta, so perhaps nothing at all will come of it.  But as far as the holding of the case is concerned, the court has at least brought consistency back to this area of law.


Next week the Eleventh Circuit will hear the en banc appeal of United States v. Davis.  This case involves the use of cell tower location information to track the movements of a suspect.  Last year a three judge panel ruled that the government needed to obtain a warrant before it could acquire this information from the phone company.  Next week, the Eleventh Circuit will re-hear the case en banc and decide whether they will pull back from the broad holding and expansive reasoning of the original decision.

cell tower location display

In the Davis case, the government suspected the defendant of numerous armed robberies.  During its investigation, the government obtained a court order to acquire the cell tower location data from the defendant’s phone pursuant to the Stored Communications Act (“SCA”).  At the outset, it should be noted that this information is the least intrusive and least precise type of location information that is available from an individual’s cell phone.  Cell tower location information merely tells the phone company (and in this case, the government) the one or two towers which were used to contact the suspect’s phone when he made or received a phone call, as well as the direction the suspect was in relation to the tower(s).  These are usually, but not always, the closest cell phone towers to the suspect at the time he or she used the cell phone.  The data is only created when the suspect actually uses the cell phone–usually when he or she is making or receiving a call.  In contrast, when law enforcement officers have the phone company “ping” a cell phone, or when it uses the GPS device built into the cell phone,the officers obtain a real-time, continuous, precise location of the suspect, regardless of whether the suspect is using the cell phone at the time.

Under the SCA, the government need only show “specific and articulable facts” that the information could be linked to a crime in order to obtain a court order.  Davis argued (and the three judge panel agreed) that acquiring this location information was a Fourth Amendment search, and so the government needed to obtain a warrant based on probable cause before gaining access to this data.  The three-judge panel acknowledged that this was a case of first impression, and so it relied heavily on Justice Alito’s four justice concurrence in the Jones case in its reasoning.  In Jones, four justices found that a twenty-eight day continuous surveillance using a GPS was a Fourth Amendment search because of the “mosaic doctrine”–i.e., the government learned so much public information about the defendant that it created a mosaic which revealed private, protected information.  The three-judge panel in Davis acknowledged the difference between the two fact patterns, but argued that the case was “sufficiently similar” to make it “clearly relevant” to their analysis.

In fact, the distinctions between Davis and Jones are significant, and they all point to the conclusion that the search in Davis does not deserve Fourth Amendment protection.  The only reason the Alito concurrence found that the government surveillance in Jones constituted a search was because of the large number of trips that were tracked; in the Davis case, the government only examined a small number of incidents (specifically, the times when a robbery was occurring).  But the Davis three judge panel ignored this distinction, arguing that tracking a person’s public location even once could constitute a search: “…[E]ven on a person’s first visit to a gynecologist, a psychiatrist, a bookie, or a priest, one may assume the visit is private if it was not conducted in a public way.”  The Jones case also involved tracking an individual at all times, while the police in Davis only gained location information from the defendant when he voluntarily provided that information to the phone company by using his cell phone.  And finally, the Jones location information was much more precise, showing the police exactly where the defendant’s car was located; the Davis location information only showed the general area where the defendant was located.  (The three judge panel brushed this difference aside, arguing that because the prosecutor claimed the cell phone location placed the defendant “near each of six crime scenes,” it could place him “near any other scene” as well, including the “home of a lover, or a dispensary of medication, or a place of worship, or a house of ill repute.”)

Essentially the Davis panel appeared to be arguing that since an individual may want to keep his general location at any given time private from the government, the Fourth Amendment protects the government from learning that information unless it first obtained a warrant.  This is certainly not supported by Jones and directly contradicts Knotts, which allows the government to use electronic means to track an individual over the course of one trip.

The only significant difference the Davis panel found between its case and the Jones case was that the Jones case involved tracking a car, whereas the Davis case involved tracking a cell phone.  The Davis court concluded that a person has less reasonable expectation of privacy in the movements of a car, because it is easily visible when in public, than it does in the movements of an individual (as tracked through a cell phone), which may not be so easily visible.  Unfortunately for the Davis court, no other court has made any such distinction.  The only distinction that matters is whether the location being tracked is in public (as in Knotts) or in private (as in Karo)–and, after Jones, whether there is so much information that it creates a mosaic.  Neither of those distinctions existed in Davis.

Finally, the Davis court had to overcome one more obstacle in order to come to its extraordinary conclusion: it had to deal with the third party doctrine.  As a general rule, a person loses all Fourth Amendment protection for any information that he or she turns over to a third party (such as a phone company).  The Davis court argued that the third party doctrine only applies when a person “voluntarily and knowingly” conveys information to a third party, and then claimed that a cell phone user has no idea that he or she is conveying her location to the phone company when he or she makes a cell phone call.  The first step of this argument seems questionable as a matter of law (there is no strong support for the proposition that the third party doctrine only applies to “voluntary and knowing” transfer of information) and the second step of this argument seems flat out wrong as a matter of fact (regardless of what the defendant in Davis might have thought, most people must know that the cell phone company needs to determine the location of their phone in order to send calls to it).

The Davis court ultimately ruled for the government and refused to suppress the evidence based on the good faith exception to the exclusionary rule, but its reasoning and dicta regarding cell phone location information still stands.  If the en banc court does not overturn that aspect of the case, it will represent a radical expansion of the Jones case–an expansion that is not consistent with the rest of Fourth Amendment doctrine in this area.