The Florida driver in a fatal hit-and-run accident may have been another example of a dangerous motorist distracted by his cell phone. However, in this case, the cell phone use may have also implicated the driver in a crime. His cell phone records could help convict him on vehicular homicide charges in Fort Lauderdale.
A speeding Porsche hit and killed two men. The car’s owner, Ryan LeVin, claims another man, Derek Cook, was driving his car at the time of the crash. To help uncover the truth, local police worked with the Secret Service to analyze Cook and LeVin’s cell phone records.
Though many users are unaware, cell phone companies can record the location within 20 to 300 yards of any phone within range of three or more cellular towers. Using cell phone records from Sprint and AT&T, investigators tracked the location of Cook and LeVin’s phones before and after the crash. The investigation found that Cook could not have been driving the car when it crashed into another vehicle and killed two other men.
Cell phone tracking records could become a more common piece of evidence in a range of personal injury cases, and other civil and criminal cases. They can be used in real time to track drug dealers or other criminals, and cell phone tracking records have been combed to find criminals, such as a pair of Texas bank robbers. In that case, the FBI used cell phone records to find two phones that were used at the location of 12 successive bank heists.
For several years, law enforcement officials have been increasingly at odds with civil liberties groups and privacy advocates.
In 2007, an internal Justice Department memo recommended that federal prosecutors seek warrants for cellular tracking based on probable cause. However, the Justice Department this year defended warrantless cell phone tracking in a federal appeals court case. The American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Center for Democracy and Technology have all filed opposing briefs defending Americans’ privacy rights.
The court’s decision, which is expected soon, could also impact the use of cell phone tracking records in other court cases.
Meanwhile, cell phone companies are making the tracking technology more advanced for legal and commercial reasons. First, they must comply with a federal mandate to provide enhanced 911 tracking. Also, they are selling new services that allow users to find nearby friends or help parents track their children.
As tracking with global positioning satellite systems and cell phone towers becomes more precise, the use of such evidence in courtrooms will see higher demand — and continued controversy.