Cell Phone Tracking in Pennsylvania

Filed under: Criminal Law, News by Contributor @ July 2, 2014

The usage of cell phones has made it easier than ever for us to be tracked.  Even if a phone has been destroyed, it may have left behind evidence that investigators can use to piece together where it, and its owner, have been.

Whenever a phone call is made, there is a two-way communication between the radio in the cell phone and a radio in a “base station.”  Base stations are owned and operated by the major wireless companies such as AT&T and Verizon, and can be located just blocks apart from each other.  Cell phones connect to the base station with the strongest signal, usually the closest.  However, a cell phone can switch from being connected to one base station to another while a call is in progress.  If a caller moves after a call has been made, such as if the caller is driving in a car, then there can be what is known as a “handover” from one base station to the next.  A handover occurs when the caller moves to an area with a base station that has a stronger signal.

When a handover from one base station to another is made, the cell phone carrier records the information.  One call alone cannot give away a caller’s location, but if several calls are made, it’s possible for the caller’s location to be mapped out.  It is even possible for the callers’ speed to be determined.

Generally, courts will allow cell phone call records and lists of the base stations to be admitted into evidence.  However, the rules are different for cases in which real time cell phone data is sought in order to help catch a suspect.  In Commonwealth v. Rushing, 71 A.3d 939 (2013), the Pennsylvania Superior Court held that the police were required to have probable cause and obtain a search warrant in order to obtain real time cell site information data.  The court reiterated the established rule that a warrantless search is only permitted under the Pennsylvania constitution when both probable cause and exigent circumstances exist.

If privacy is valuable to you, it is easy to avoid being tracked: Simply turn off your cell phone, and, if possible, remove the battery.  That will completely prevent your phone, and by extension yourself, from being tracked. If you don’t, Big Brother will be watching!

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