(credit: Eric Harmatz)

On Monday, the Supreme Court allowed the nationwide legal confusion to continue regarding a bread-and-butter privacy topic in the digital age: whether the constitution demands that the authorities need a probable cause court warrant to obtain cell-site location data records of suspects under investigation.
That’s because the justices, without comment, declined (PDF) to consider the case of Florida man Quartavious Davis who got a life term for several robberies in a 2010. Prosecution in that trial built its case with Davis’ mobile phone’s location data, which the police obtained without a warrant from mobile provider MetroPCS. The data linked the man to several crime scenes. The government’s position on the topic is that Americans’ mobile devices can be tracked without the Fourth Amendment’s probable case standard being met.
For the moment, there is no clear legal standard on whether a warrant is required. Two federal appellate courts have ruled that no warrant was necessary (PDF), but a third appeals court said that warrants are required. That divergence of views normally is enough to create a so-called “split” in the appellate courts, which would necessitate Supreme Court intervention to resolve the conflict. But the 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled in favor of privacy, set aside (PDF) its decision two weeks ago and agreed to rehear the issue.
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