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Feds no longer need a warrant to search your phone location records, district court rules

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A major court decision has been reversed

In a reversal of a decision from last year, the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled today that the government does not need a warrant to search wireless carriers' cellphone records.

The court ruled the records were not from a "search"

The case focuses on Quartavious Davis, accused of a series of armed robberies, who prosecutors tracked using 11,606 location records from 2010, obtained from a carrier called MetroPCS. Although Davis' lawyers argued that the records were inadmissable, as they were obtained without a warrant or probable cause, and thus violated his Fourth Amendment rights, the court disagreed.

Instead, the court ruled, the government must only meet the standard for records obtainable under the Stored Communications Act, which requires that the government "offers specific and articulable facts showing that there are reasonable grounds to believe" the records "are relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation."

Citing precedent from past cases, the court ruled that there was no reasonable expectation of privacy toward the records and that the records were not obtained by what constitutes a "search" under the law. "To prevail on his Fourth Amendment claim, Davis must show both (1) that the application of the SCA to the facts of his case involved a 'search' within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, and (2) that such search was unreasonable. This Davis cannot do," the ruling says.

Privacy advocates are already crying foul about the ruling, arguing that the court has set a precedent for the government to easily obtain other records, such as web-browsing behavior. The ruling affects cases in the court's jurisdiction, but a ruling has yet to be made nationwide. In 2013, the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit made an opposite ruling. Davis' lawyers could appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.