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TX Criminal Court of Appeals Rules that Police Can Obtain CSLI Without a Warrant . . . Sometimes

By Peek & Toland on May 9, 2019

Although the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that obtaining 127 days’ worth of historical cell-site location information (CSLI) without a search warrant violates the Fourth Amendment, the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals recently has ruled that using real-time CSLI for a three-hour period to locate a suspect without a search warrant does NOT violate the Fourth Amendment. The Court went to great lengths in its decision to justify its ruling and distinguish it from the situation addressed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

CSLI is the data held by third-party cellular companies for business purposes. Whenever a person uses a cell phone to make a call, send a text message, or access an application using cell phone data, the phone connects with a near-by cell tower. This connection retrieves data from the phone and stores it in the cell tower. This usage data can generate time-stamped locations of the cell phone, which, in turn, provides a means to track the movements of the cell phone user.

In the Texas court case, as law enforcement officers began to prepare a search warrant affidavit to obtain CSLI with respect to a murder suspect, they realized that another officer already had obtained the CSLI. The officers used three hours of real-time CSLI to locate and apprehend the suspect. The suspect then moved to suppress the CSLI data, arguing that obtaining the data without a warrant violated the Fourth Amendment.

The Texas court concluded that obtaining the CSLI in this case did not violate the Fourth Amendment. According to the court, the necessary inquiry is whether the government had seized “enough” information from the records that it violated a legitimate expectation to privacy. The court did not establish a clear rule about how much data police can access or how long they can spend accessing the data before it violates the right to privacy. However, the court ruled that in the case at issue, the police did not cross the threshold necessary to violate the defendant’s reasonable expectation of privacy.

An experienced Texas criminal defense attorney can help you build a strong defense against any criminal charges. We are here to evaluate the facts surrounding your case, present your options, and help you make the decisions that will be most beneficial to you, based on your circumstances. Contact Peek & Toland at (512) 474-4445 today and see how we can help.

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