Can The Police Obtain Cell Tower Location History Without A Warrant?

Can the police obtain cell tower history without a warrant? Historically speaking, police officers were allowed to obtain a great deal more information than they are today without a warrant. If you are dealing with a legal issue regarding your cell tower location history that may be used against you, consider reaching out to an experienced criminal defense attorney at the Law Office of Faraji A. Rosenthall at 703-934-0101 today to ensure your legal rights remain protected.

Can The Police Obtain Cell Tower Location History Without A Warrant?

In most cases, police officers and law enforcement is legally required to obtain a warrant in order to collect the cell tower location history of any person. However, historically, that has not always been the case which leads to a great deal of confusion among both police officers and potential defendants.

The Third-Party Doctrine

The Third-Party Doctrine was established in 1976 and again in 1979, in which the federal government confirmed that people have no legitimate expectation of privacy if they voluntarily turn over their data to third parties. In the case of Smith v. Maryland, police obtained telephone records of all the calls made by a defendant without a warrant. The ruling favored the warrantless collection of telephone data. This became a significant legal issue when smartphones became commonplace, and more than just dialed phone numbers could be collected when records of smartphones were requested.

United States v. Graham

In 2012, the issue of location data from cell phones manifested in a case where police obtained historical cell phone location data without a warrant. In the case United States v. Graham, the courts argued that historical cell phone location data did not fall under the protection of the Fourth Amendment. Moreover, this ruling reinforced the notion that people who voluntarily disclose their information to third parties do not receive fourth amendment protection.

United States v. Jones

In a similar case a few years later, location data was tracked through GPS devices without a warrant. In the case United States v. Jones, the courts determined that using a GPS device to track location data without a warrant was a violation of the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution.

This decision concluded that any evidence obtained without a warrant cannot be used in court. However, in this case, police officers had installed a GPS device on the defendant’s car. The then-Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor explained that in a digital age people reveal a lot of their personal data to third parties while conducting otherwise mundane tasks and the notion that police can use GPS trackers without a warrant needed to be revisited.


Today, every cell phone regularly scans the area in which it is located for nearby towers. These cell phone towers have antennas that provide the best possible signal. However, in so doing this means every cell phone produces a time-based record for every connection it makes to a cell tower. That record is referred to as “cell site location information” or CSLI. Using this information just about anyone can make a determination regarding a person’s location.

Current Law: Warrants Needed To Obtain Cell Tower Location History

In 2018, the United States Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. stated that the Federal Courts would not give states unrestricted access to wireless databases of cell tower location data. It was decided that cell phone location history falls under the 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

This means police or law enforcement need probable cause in order to request a warrant and they are not legally allowed to search cell phone tower location history without a warrant. If the police obtained cell tower location records without a warrant or in an illegal fashion, consider visiting with our experienced defense attorneys at the Law Office of Faraji A. Rosenthall to learn more about your Constitutional rights.

Court Cases That Indicate Warrants Are Needed To Obtain Cell Tower Location History

In the case of Carpenter v. United States, it was disclosed that a series of armed robberies took place over the span of a few months. In this case, the defendant was prosecuted for planning the robberies, providing weapons, and serving as the lookout in front of each electronic store that was targeted. The police were able to gain insight into his whereabouts and tag his location near each of the targeted stores through CSLI. However, all of the cell tower location history data occurred over several months and was collected without a warrant.

As a result, the famous 2018 Supreme Court decision determined that in order to protect the privacy rights of citizens in a digital era, such long-term data collection and cell phone location records require a warrant.

Exceptions To the Warrant Requirement

There are specific exceptions laid out by the Supreme Court in which a police officer would be allowed to obtain cell tower location history without a warrant. Police officers are allowed to legally obtain cell tower location information without a warrant if:

They are gathering real-time location information for an ongoing investigation

They are requesting records for a short time frame, fewer than four months

They are gathering data in response to an emergency such as child abduction, active shooting situation, or a bomb threat

They are gathering information about any cell phone connected to a single tower at one time

Contact an Experienced Defense Attorney

The crossover between Federal rulings and state law can make it difficult to understand when the police can obtain cell tower history without a warrant. If you are involved in a case where cell tower location history was collected, consider reaching out to an attorney to understand your legal rights and ensure they remain protected. When you reach out to the Law Office of Faraji A. Rosenthall at or 703-934-0101, we can consult with you regarding your specific situation, what defenses are possible, and answer any legal questions you may have.