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The People of New York v. Ali Moalawi

Cell phone location data reveals highly sensitive information about a person’s life and should not be obtained without a warrant, the Brennan Center argued in this brief.

Published: June 15, 2015

The New York Supreme Court will decide whether police violated the New York State Constitution by accessing historic cell phone location data without a warrant.

In The People of New York v. Ali Moalawi, defendant Ali Moalawi is accused of burglary in the second degree based on evidence that included six and a half months of cell site location data procured from his mobile service provider without a warrant. The Brennan Center—in conjunction with the New York Civil Liberties Union, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation—has filed a brief arguing this data reveals a large amount of private information and that acquiring it without a warrant based on probable cause violates the New York State Constitution.

The brief argues that the sensitive information about Mr. Moalawi’s life that can be deduced from the data obtained by the government and should be protected by a warrant requirement.

In a 2009 case (People v. Weaver), the New York Court of Appeals found that surveillance through a GPS device attached to a car infringes on people’s reasonable expectation of privacy and requires a warrant under the New York State Constitution.

The brief argues that cell phone location data is more intrusive than GPS technology — people park their cars but almost always have their cell phones nearby — and that the Court should apply Weaver’s reasoning in constitutionally protecting the public from law enforcement’s unbridled use of emerging surveillance technologies.

In other cases, the government has argued that cell site data is not private because it has already been conveyed to the phone company, invoking an antiquated rule known as the “third party doctrine.” The brief argues that the third party doctrine—which has been called into question in Weaver as well as recent Supreme Court and lower court cases—does not apply in this case. Mobile location data allows police to assemble a comprehensive picture of an individual’s private life in a manner that was unimaginable in early applications of the doctrine. Moreover, a cell phone is sufficiently necessary to modern life that revealing private information to a cell phone company cannot be considered voluntary disclosure.

Thus, because the government failed to obtain a warrant based on probable cause for Mr. Moalawi’s cell phone location history, the Court should grant his motion to suppress that evidence.

Read the amicus brief here [PDF]