Last week, the New Jersey Supreme Court became the first court in the country to rule that law-enforcement must get a warrant, based on probable cause, to track someone via a cellphone signal.
The ruling came in a case out of Middletown Township, where police contacted T-Mobile to obtain the whereabouts of a burglary suspect who, police feared, was about to harm his girlfriend, a potential witness against him.
Cellphones automatically contact the nearest cell tower every seven seconds. Service providers maintain that information in a database.
However, the Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion written by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, ruled that from now on, New Jersey police will first need to get a judge to issue a warrant, based on a determination of probable cause, before they can obtain such location information - unless there is a recognized emergency situation.
The ruling sends the case back to the Appellate Division, which will determine if such an emergency existed in the Middletown Township case.
The groundbreaking ruling may anger some of the court's conservative critics. But the protection of privacy rights would seem to be an issue that both liberals and conservatives can agree on.
Besides, a survey conducted by the state Attorney General's Office turned up some interesting information. The survey found that county prosecutors obtained warrants in 85 percent of the cases in which they used cellphones to track suspects. However, local police departments virtually never obtained warrants to do the same thing.
The Supreme Court's ruling will simply standardize a procedure that county prosecutors, at least, recognized as appropriate.
Rabner based his decision on an individual's expectation of privacy and the court's opinion that the New Jersey Constitution is more restrictive regarding police searches than the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
"People do not buy cellphones to serve as tracking devices or reasonably expect them to be used by the government in that way," the ruling said.
Furthermore, Rabner noted that tracking cellphone locations can provide intimate details about a person's life, including what doctors, religious institutions and stores they go to, as well as what groups they associate with.
The New Jersey Supreme Court's protection of privacy rights is welcome, in our opinion. And the ruling will not unduly restrict police when tracking suspects or responding to an emergency situation.