Mickey Stevens, MJLST Staff
The Eleventh Circuit’s recent decision in United States v. Davis, 754 F.3d 1205 (11th Cir. 2014) has created a split among the circuits regarding the interaction between the Third-Party Doctrine and cell site data recorded by cell phone service providers. The Stored Communications Act 18 U.S.C. § 2703, which was enacted as part of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, allows the Government to obtain disclosures of information regarding wire and electronic communications held by third-party service providers. Under 18 U.S.C. § 2703(d), the Government may obtain this information by court order and bypass any requirement of a warrant or showing of probable cause. The Third-Party Doctrine, which says that a person who voluntarily turns information over to third parties has no legitimate expectation of privacy in that information, served as grounds for this provision to operate without violating the Fourth Amendment. This practice was a central issue involved in the Davis decision, rendered this past June.
In Davis, a panel for the Eleventh Circuit ruled that law enforcement officers violated the Appellant’s Fourth Amendment rights when they obtained, without a warrant, records of location evidence based on cell site information. Despite this ruling, the panel concluded that the trial court’s denial of Appellant’s motions to suppress did not constitute reversible error due to the good faith exception to the exclusionary rule.
In reaching its decision, the panel rejected the Government’s argument that the Third-Party Doctrine applied to the cell site data evidence. The panel cited to a 2010 decision from the Third Circuit, In re United States for an Order Directing Provider of Elec. Commun. Serv. to Disclose Records to the Gov’t, 620 F.3d 304 (3d Cir. 2010), which held that a cell phone user voluntarily conveys only the number dialed and not the location data when he makes a call. The Eleventh Circuit’s decision is clearly contradictory to a 2013 decision from the Fifth Circuit, In re Application of the United States for Historical Cell Site Data, 724 F.3d 600 (5th Cir. 2013). There, the Fifth Circuit held that a cell phone user voluntarily conveys his cell site data each time he makes a call, and that this data could be properly obtained without a warrant.
On September 4, 2014 the Eleventh Circuit granted a motion for rehearing en banc. If the en banc court’s decision maintains the split between the Eleventh and Fifth Circuits, we might see a decision from the Supreme Court on the matter. The Supreme Court seems to have shown a particular interest in digital data as of late, judging by recent decisions in Riley v. California, 134 S. Ct. 2473 (2014), and United States v. Jones, 132 S. Ct. 945 (2012), among others. If the pro-privacy holdings and rationale in Riley and Jones serve as any indication, the Supreme Court may put an end to the Third-Party Doctrine’s application to warrantless gathering of cell site data.