Of the questioned police departments there seemed to be three main responses to the question of whether warrants were sought after or not before using cell phone tracking. Some departments simply answered outright that they did not seek warrants, such as the police in Lincoln, Nebraska who acknowledged that they often obtained precise GPS location data without even demonstrating probable cause. A similar scenario was seen in Wilson County, North Carolina where the officers admitted to obtaining historical cell phone tracking data in situations which were "relevant" to an investigation. The standard of relevancy in which they are referring to is one that is even lower than probable cause. The second group of departments either flat our refused to answer questions on the issue or just simply ignored it all together. These departments seem to be raising the most alarm as they are giving the impression that they are implementing such tactics in ways they do not wish the public to have knowledge of. There were also a small number of departments of brushed off the question, referring the questioner to the individual service providers for answers. These departments stated that they simply follow the guidelines for obtaining such information that are set forth by the service providers. I know that this is troublesome to me because when service providers stand to make profits on providing such information I would not trust mine to demand a warrant first. I assume that I am not alone in having such concerns as well, especially since when the ACLU examined the policy manuals for individual service providers they discovered that many of them expressly state they do not require warrants.
Similar examinations were done on the individual police department manuals as well, which revealed that many listed cell phone tracking as a tool. However, these manuals also warn that the use of such technology should not be mentioned or discussed with the public or the media because of the potential backlash that could arise, especially from warrantless tracking. These departments knew of the issues that could arise if such information was released to individuals living in their towns, and in return simply implemented policy through their manuals which told officers to keep from mentioning such practices out of their reports. I think what it comes down to when using such technology without warrants is the violation of Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures. A similar case occurred in January when the Supreme Court ruled that a GPS tracking device which was placed on a suspected drug dealers car was an unreasonable search.
A GPS tracking device
All of this is not to say that cell phone tracking should never be used, as it has saved lives and holds the potential to save many more. In February for instance, police in Michigan were able to locate and save the victim of a stabbing incident who was hiding from his attacker in a basement by tracking his cell phone location. There have been many other positive instances as well were lost/taken children have been found, and other stranded individuals have been rescued. These real life benefits are what police departments are citing as a defense for their actions, stating that such benefits outweigh the legal questions. The benefits for such technology are great, but the fact remains that the extreme risk for potential abuse looms large especially in situations where such information is being gathered with the absence of warrants.