NJ's Federal Law Enforcement Used GPS To Track People's Cell Phones

April 23, 2009

Justice Department Documents Reveal Former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie Approved Tracking Whereabouts With No Warrant

NEW YORK - The American Civil Liberties Union announced today its discovery that former U.S. Attorney for New Jersey Chris Christie gave approval to track people's precise whereabouts through their cell phones without a warrant.

"This is just the newest example of our privacy rights careening over the edge with federal officials drunk at the wheel," said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Deborah Jacobs. "Big Brother is tucked away in our cell phones, and the man behind the curtain is Chris Christie."

Justice Department documents made public today through a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation show that the government is actively taking advantage of GPS or other similarly precise technology to monitor people's coming and goings, specifically in New Jersey as well as Florida, and that it does not always obtain a search warrant beforehand.

"Tracking the location of people's cell phones reveals intimate details of their daily routines and is highly invasive of their privacy," said Catherine Crump, a staff attorney with the ACLU. "The government is violating the Constitution when it fails to get a search warrant before tracking people this way."

Although low-level courts have authorized the tracking, New Jersey and Florida are the only two known states in which federal prosecutors are obtaining court orders for GPS or similarly precise tracking information merely by showing that the tracking information is "relevant and material" to a criminal investigation - a substantially lower burden than the "probable cause" standard required by the Constitution.

The Justice Department itself has stated that federal prosecutors should seek probable cause warrants to obtain precise location data in private areas. Considering the fact that people do not even have an opportunity in court to challenge the tracking, since they are not informed of the proceedings, it's essential that the government have a sufficient legal basis before initiating this surveillance.

The ACLU wishes to participate in such proceedings as amicus curiae in the interest of defending the rights of those potentially subject to tracking.

The ACLU and EFF sued the Justice Department in July 2008 for records related to the government's use of cell phones as tracking devices. Some documents have been turned over but the lawsuit continues over additional information about the government's practices.

Attorneys on the case are Crump of the ACLU, David Sobel of EFF and Arthur Spitzer, Legal Director of the ACLU of the National Capital Area.

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