Was it an Unlawful Warrantless Search Under the 4th Amendment for the DA to Obtain Cell Tower Records From a Third Party and Use Them Against a Defendant Charged with Murder?
Ford v. State (2015) | San Antonio Murder Mystery
Jon Ford and Dana Edwards dated off and on for two years in the small town of Alamo Heights, Texas. After a long break-up, the former couple saw each other at a friend’s New Year’s Eve party. The group of friends drank heavily and played “Apples to Apples,” an interactive game that required the participants to reveal their thoughts on personal topics. During the game, the subject of marriage came up and Ford was singled out about his on-again-off-again relationship with Edwards. Angry, Ford left the party before everyone else.
The next day, Edwards’s parents were expecting her in Fredericksburg, but she never showed. Worried, her parents drove to her condo, where they found her dead. Because she sustained lacerations and trauma to her head, the police opened up a murder investigation.
The State Gathers Evidence
On January 2nd, Ford volunteered to give a statement. In his statement, Ford said he left the party around 11:30 pm, went home, and fell asleep. Ford said that his new cell phone had been in his possession the entire night.
The investigators obtained video footage of the streets bordering Edwards’s condo, footage that conflicted with Ford’s official statement. At 11:24 pm, the camera captured a white SUV, similar to Ford’s vehicle, turn into the victim’s condo complex. At 1:00 am, Edwards’s car entered the complex. At 3:16 am, with the headlamps turned off, the white SUV exited the complex. No one could definitively say the white SUV belonged to Ford, as the license plate and registration stickers could not be determined because of the quality of the video.
A week later, the San Antonio District Attorney’s Office filed an application under Article 18.21 § 5(a) of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, and in compliance with Communications Act, to obtain Ford’s historical cell-site-location records from AT&T Wireless.
Ford’s Case Goes to Trial
At trial, a radio network engineer from AT&T Wireless testified about the records. The engineer said that AT&T can tell where a cell phone is located by examining the sector information. He explained, “when a person sets up a call, receives a call, or sends a text, the person does so in communication with…sectors in the cell-phone network…[which] enables [AT&T] to look up the records for a particular phone number…determin[ing] [the] cell phone’s proximity to a cell…tower.” Ford v. State, 444 S.W.3d 171, 190 (Tex. App.—San Antonio 2014). This is also true when the phone is not being actively used, as “unanswered texts and calls…automatic downloads….cause the [phone] to…ping the network to alert the network that the [phone] is in a particular…area.” Id.
According to AT&T, Ford’s cell records indicate that the numerous pings place Ford at the party, then at the victim’s condo complex and finally, at his home. The “ping” time frame also matches the timestamps from the camera footage for the unknown white SUV. Id.
The jury found Ford guilty of murder, sentencing him to forty years in prison. Ford appealed, and the court of appeals affirmed the verdict and sentence, relying upon the third party doctrine. Justice Chapa dissented in the court of appeals case, stating, in a nutshell, that Ford retained a reasonable expectation of privacy in his physical movements and location; he did not voluntarily surrender his expectation of privacy; and because the State did not secure a warrant before obtaining the records, Ford’s Fourth Amendment rights were violated. Ford appealed to the Criminal Court of Appeals (“CCA”).
The Big Issue | Privacy of Cell Tower Records
Did the State of Texas’ warrantless acquisition of historical cell-site-location information—recorded by a 3rd party cell-phone service provider—violate the Fourth Amendment? Did Ford have a reasonable expectation of privacy in his movements and location?
What does the law say about the expectation of privacy in cell phone records? What is the Third Party Doctrine?
The Fourth Amendment Guarantees , “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” U.S. CONST. amend. IV. A person may appeal a verdict under a privacy theory if (1) he has a subjective expectation of privacy in the place or object searched, and (2) society…recognize[s] that expectation as reasonable. State v. Granville, 423 S.W.3d, 399, 405 (Tex. Crim. App. 2014).
The Third Party Doctrine allows for acquisition of information revealed to a third party (such as a cell phone company or a bank). Case law reflecting this doctrine suggests that information that must be disclosed [in the normal course of business] for the phone company to provide the requested service, is not off-limits to law enforcement and is not a violation of the Fourth Amendment. However, courts across the United States remain divided on this issue.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Weighs in on Cell Phone Records and the Third Party Doctrine
Here, the CCA says that the DA’s office did not violate Ford’s Fourth Amendment rights because Ford had no legitimate expectation of privacy in records held by AT&T, records kept in the normal course of business, pointing to his location and movements in the past. AT&T uses the records for its own business purposes to improve network functionality. Moreover, phone service providers are required, by the FCC to locate a cell phone when a 911 call is placed. In re Application (Fifth Circuit), 724 F.3d at 611-12. Therefore, “The type of non-content evidence, lawfully created by a third-party telephone company for legitimate business purposes, does not belong to defendant[s], even if it concerns [a defendant].” United States v. Davis, 785 F.3d 498, 511 (11th Cir. 2015) . Acknowledging that Fourth Amendment claims may survive with in the case of GPS devices, or in long-term monitoring of individuals, the CCA affirms, holding, “In the circumstances [of this case], we do not see a jurisprudential reason to stray from the third-party doctrine.”
What could Ford v. State mean for you?
Generally speaking, your cell phone records, by way of the third-party doctrine, are subject to review by law enforcement and could be used against you in criminal proceedings in Texas. The CCA is saying that a reasonable person does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in his or her cell tower records.