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Sun Investigates

U.S. appeals court to look again at cellphone location data

A federal appeals court in Atlanta has agreed to reconsider a ruling by three of its judges that police need a warrant to collect cell tower location information about suspects — an issue that is central to a separate appeal in a Baltimore robbery case.

The move last week, which was requested by prosecutors, delivered at least a temporary setback to privacy advocates, who cheered when the the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in June became the first to rule that the data should be protected by the Fourth Amendment.

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The data includes information about which tower a cellphone is connected to during a call and the direction of the phone relative to the tower. The information gives an approximation of the caller's location.

The issue is at the forefront of the evolving use of technology by law enforcement. Prosecutors say the data — which is collected whenever a mobile phone makes a call — is helpful in placing suspects at or near the scene of a crime, but privacy groups say it can easily be used to snoop on people's private lives.

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The 11th Circuit case involves a Florida man who was convicted in a string of robberies and sentenced to 162 years in prison. While a panel of three judges on the appeals court ruled that prosecutors generally should get a warrant to obtain the cell tower information, it also upheld the man's conviction because it decided authorities had acted in good faith in his case.

The Atlanta court's decision does not bind judges in Maryland. Lawyers for two men from Baltimore, Aaron Graham and Eric Jordan, who were convicted of robery, are seeking a similar ruling from a federal appeals court in Richmond, Va.

Federal prosecutors in Maryland are seeking to maintain the status quo here, which allows authorities to get the data under a lower standard of evidence.

iduncan@baltsun.com

twitter.com/iduncan


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