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Kentucky Supreme Court decision: Law enforcement needs warrant for cellphone location searches

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Posted at 6:20 PM, Jun 20, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-21 11:09:31-04

FRANKFORT, Ky. (LEX 18) — A Kentucky Supreme Court decision will now require police to have a search warrant before tracking someone's cellphone in real-time. It's a result of the Commonwealth of Kentucky v. Dovontia Reed case. In 2017 Reed plead guilty to second-degree robbery on the condition that he could appeal the Cell Site Location Information that was used for tracking in his investigation.

ACLU Staff Attorney Heather Gatnarek says, "The idea is whether or not police can access this information about your location without a warrant or whether they need a warrant to seek that information."

The case was brought to the Kentucky Court of Appeals, which found that the evidence should have been suppressed, then it was taken to the Supreme Court of Kentucky.

Gatnarek explained, "The courts are realizing now, and have realized for some time that...just as we have a privacy right to our homes, to our possessions, to our bodies, we also have a reasonable privacy right to things like our cellphones."

Although they were not involved in the original case, a lieutenant with the Georgetown Police Department sought to find out more about how cellphone tracking is used.

Lt. Nicholas Lodal says, "90% of the time that we are using real-time isn't to track criminals, it's to locate somebody that's life is in immediate danger."

Including Amber Alerts, missing, and endangered people, only 10% of the time the searches are used to track someone they are looking for. Police work with cellphone carriers, including T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon, to ping a phone's location.

Lt. Lodal says this new ruling is a reminder, "that we just need to make sure that when we are utilizing this tool that we're just going through all the proper channels."

Reed's attorney, Adam Meyer, says in part, "This case reaffirms the long-held ideal that we are all free in our personal lives from the government conducting a search without warrant."

Gatnarek says, "We should all just be on the lookout for unreasonable government intrusion into our devices. I mean this is one small piece of it but, there's going to be many, many, many other ways that there may be some encroaching on our privacy and our data."