TRENTON — In a trailblazing decision that expands electronic privacy rights in New Jersey, the state Supreme Court ruled today that law enforcement agencies must get warrants if they want to track crime suspects by tracing the signals from their cell phones.
“Cell phones are not meant to serve as tracking devices to locate their owners wherever they may be,” Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote in the 7-0 decision.
The state’s high court is the first in the country to impose such a ruling, and former state justices and legal experts said the decision could ripple throughout the states and in federal courts wrestling with the same questions on the collection and use of electronic data.
Privacy advocates hailed the decision as a major victory for New Jersey residents in an age of wide-ranging electronic surveillance.
In issuing the ruling, the high court sided with Thomas Earls, who was arrested on burglary charges in Monmouth County in 2006.
Without obtaining a warrant, the police tracked down Earls with the help of his service provider, T-Mobile, which gave police his location within one square mile three times in one evening.
Rabner wrote that cell phones have evolved to where location signals go out every seven seconds, and police can pinpoint someone’s location “within feet in some instances.” Because that information can map out a person’s entire life — from their political activities to their shopping habits — police must get a warrant before seeking it, the court ruled.
“People buy cell phones to communicate with others, to use the internet, and for a growing number of other reasons,” Rabner wrote. “But no one buys a cell phone to share detailed information about their whereabouts with the police.”
The justices reversed an appellate court decision that had maintained no warrant was needed because police tracked Earls’s location while he was driving on public roads.
The state Attorney General’s Office had argued that the data from T-Mobile brought police to a “generalized” area, not a specific place, although it acknowledged that cell phone tracking had become much more precise since 2006.
“As a practical matter, this ruling only affects future cases, and police in New Jersey already have been routinely seeking probable-cause based warrants before seeking cell phone location information,” said Peter Aseltine, a spokesman for acting Attorney General John Hoffman.
“We will implement training for New Jersey law enforcement to ensure compliance with this ruling.”
Federal courts have been divided on the evolving issue of electronic privacy and some have found that cell phone and beeper data can be collected without a warrant in such public areas as roadways but not in private. Those courts based their rulings on the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which protects people from “unreasonable search and seizure” of their property.
There is no such gray area in New Jersey, Rabner wrote, because the state constitution guarantees a stronger right to privacy than the Fourth Amendment. In making his point, he cited several rulings that protect internet service provider logs, bank records and hotel-room telephone bills from warrantless searches.
“Using a cell phone to determine the location of its owner can be far more revealing than acquiring toll billing, bank, or internet subscriber records,” the chief justice wrote. “It is akin to using a tracking device and can function as a substitute for 24/7 surveillance without police having to confront the limits of their resources.”
In emergency situations, no warrant is required, Rabner added.
Privacy groups and other advocates hailed the court’s strong stand protecting electronic communications.
“The New Jersey Supreme Court is the first state supreme court to impose a warrant requirement for cell phone locations, and that’s a very important step in an evolving area of the law,” said Alan Butler, a lawyer at the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center, who filed a brief in the case arguing in favor of the warrant requirement.
Alison Perrone, Earls’s public defender, said the U.S. Supreme court “hedged” on a similar question last year in a case known as U.S. v. Jones.
In that case, the federal Supreme Court said that when law enforcement agencies place a GPS device in a suspect’s car, they are conducting a “search.” But they declined to rule whether there is a reasonable expectation of privacy outlawing such searches under the Fourth Amendment, Perrone said.
“Courts in other jurisdictions face similar challenges in balancing privacy rights and law enforcement aims,” former New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Peter Verniero said of Rabner’s ruling. “Given the wide use of cell phones, the reach of this decision is potentially very large.”
During a six-month period in 2012, the Attorney General’s Office surveyed 600 cases across the state in which county prosecutors used cell-phone information to track suspects.
The office found that warrants were obtained in 85 percent of cases, according to the court, noting that no warrants were issued in the nearly 60 cases handled by local or municipal police.