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Wednesday, June 12, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Some Privacy Upheld in Cellphone Tracking Cases

WASHINGTON (CN) - The Department of Justice need not disclose cellphone tracking records involving suspects who were acquitted or had their case dismissed, a federal judge ruled.

In a 2008 complaint under the Freedom of Information Act, the American Civil Liberties Union said that the Justice Department had rejected its requests for information about the government's role in "tracking the location of individuals' mobile phones without first obtaining a warrant based on probable cause."

The court ordered the release records pertaining to individuals found guilty and convicted in such cases, but found that the privacy of those acquitted or had their charges dropped outweighed the public's need for transparency.

A three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit agreed that the department should divulge the records from cases that ended in convictions or plea deals. The court never decided, however, whether privacy interests justify an exemption for cases that met with acquittal or dismissal. Rather it said the trial judge should first investigate whether any records that meet such criteria have actually been withheld.

On remand, the ACLU said it had been barred from accessing four cases that ended in dismissals and two cases that ended in acquittals.

Noting that the appellate panel had not identified any legal errors when it considered the case, U.S. District Judge Amy Jackson decided Friday to simply reaffirm the 2010 order.

"This decision is in the interest of judicial efficiency," Jackson wrote.

As the 2010 ruling states: "the public interest in 'what the government is up to' outweighs the privacy interests of persons who have been convicted of crimes or have entered public guilty pleas; but ... the privacy interests of persons who have been acquitted, or whose cases have been sealed and remain under seal, or whose charges have been dismissed, outweigh the public interest in disclosure of their names and case numbers."

The Justice Department had argued that disclosing the records would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.

Jackson granted it summary judgment as to the four docketed cases that resulted in acquittals and dismissals.

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