Emergency Warrantless Cell Phone Tracking Upheld

Officers investigated a report of a woman’s body in a wooded area “off the beaten path.” They found the woman on the ground in a kneeling position, her hands clasped in front and a gunshot wound to the back of her head. Earlier that morning, a nearby construction crew had reported hearing a gunshot. All evidence pointed to the woman having been shot at the location where she was found.

Officers identified the woman as Melissa Barratt. Barratt had recently been arrested for selling drugs. The arresting officers asked her to provide information about her criminal associates. Barratt told them that she was extremely afraid of Caraballo, her drug-dealing associate. She said that Caraballo would kill her if he knew that she was talking to police, and that he had committed assault or even homicide on previous occasions.

Officers knew of Caraballo’s drug dealing and that he was armed and dangerous. They feared that he might harm others, possibly including undercover operatives. Officers asked the telecommunications company Sprint to track the GPS coordinates of Caraballo’s cell phone by triangulating the cell phone’s position by reference to three or more network satellites. The officers did not obtain a warrant. The tracking led to Caraballo’s location.

Officers saw Carabello’s car, stopped him and arrested him. Caraballo made a number of statements to the officers that were later submitted in evidence at trial. Caraballo asked that the statements be suppressed, claiming that the pinging of his cell phone constituted a warrantless search.

The appellate court sidestepped the question of Carabello’s expectation of privacy in his real-time cell phone location information: “We need not resolve this important and complex Fourth Amendment question. … Other Circuits have considered the reasonableness of such expectations in cases akin to the present one (see United States v. Skinner, 690 F.3d 772 (6th Cir. 2012)).” Instead, the court held that exigent circumstances justified the cell phone tracking. The court noted the officers’ limited use of the tracking information to quickly (in less than two hours) find Carabello’s location, and nothing more.

Without doubt, this issue will arise again, allowing other courts to weigh in.

United States v. Caraballo, 2016 WL 4073248 (2nd Cir. 2016)

Ken Wallentine

KEN WALLENTINE is the Chief of the West Jordan (Utah) Police Department and former Chief of Law Enforcement for the Utah Attorney General. He has served over four decades in public safety, is a legal expert and editor of Xiphos, a monthly national criminal procedure newsletter. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Death and serves as a use of force consultant in state and federal criminal and civil litigation across the nation.

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