BRIEF: State Police Must Get Warrant to Obtain Cell Phone Location History

June 15, 2015

Under New York law, a warrant is required to obtain historical cell phone location information, the Brennan Center argued in a brief.

The brief, submitted by the Brennan Center for Justice, the New York Civil Liberties Union, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, contends that the New York State Constitution guarantees a right to privacy to every resident, including the location history recorded by an individual’s cell phone. Location history can reveal highly private information about an individual and should not be accessible to police without a warrant.

“Cell phone location data reveals a tremendous amount of private information about a person’s life, including the person’s political, religious and personal activities,” said Michael Price, Counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice. “It is every bit as private as an email or phone call, and the police should get a warrant if they want access to this type of information.”

“Just because a cell phone company has access to your cell phone records doesn’t give law enforcement the right to search through them without a warrant,” said Rachel Levinson-Waldman, Counsel at the Brennan Center. “A service agreement is not a stand-in for consent to police scrutiny.”

The brief was filed in The People of New York v. Ali Moalawi, a case in which New York prosecutors obtained the cell phone location history of defendant Ali Moalawi over a six month period without a warrant to investigate his alleged involvement in burglaries. The brief demonstrates that these records paint a highly private profile of Mr. Moalawi and contends that they should be protected by the State Constitution’s guarantee of the right to privacy.

In 2009, the New York Court of Appeals ruled that New Yorkers have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their location over time, as captured by a GPS tracker attached to a car. That same standard of privacy should apply to the information obtained in this case.

Read the brief here.

Read more about the case here.

For more information, contact Seth Hoy at seth.hoy@nyu.edu or 646-292-8369.