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GA Supreme Court Addresses Law Enforcement's Access to Cell Records

In the case of Registe v. State, which was decided on the 5th of this month, the Georgia Supreme Court examined law enforcement's ability to obtain a person's cell phone communications and subscriber information without the person's consent or court order. Georgia state law already provides a procedure for law enforcement to subpoena the information but only in emergency situations.

On July 20, 2007, in Columbus, Georgia, two people were killed after borrowing a car from Lawrence Kidd. Police questioned Kidd and discovered the two men were on the way to meet a man named "Mike," whose cell phone number was then provided to the officers. The officers contacted Cricket Communications, the cell phone service provider, to inform them of the investigation, and requested that it release information about the owner of the cell phone number and communications conducted using the cell phone on the night of the incident. They made it a point to stress the immediate danger posed by having a suspect in a double murder still at large.

The service provider complied with the request, and police discovered that Michael Jason Registe was the owner of the cell phone in question. More circumstantial evidence was then gathered after interviewing others who were located through cell phone records that had seen Registe on the night of the incident. The police later located a gun and the cell phone at issue when they executed a search warrant at Registe's home.

At trial, Registe's counsel filed a motion to suppress the cell phone records turned over by the service provider. The court denied the motion and the Georgia Supreme Court affirmed the decision. The Court found that Registe had no Fourth Amendment standing to contest the release of the information because the records in question belonged to the telephone company. They held that Registe did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy for the contents in the records. Next, the Court examined statute O.C.G.A. § 16-11-66.1, which states that law enforcement may compel the disclosure of certain records relating to electronic communications "to the extent and under the procedures and conditions provided for by the law of the United States." The applicable federal law, 18 U.S.C. § 2702, permits the voluntary disclosure of electronic communications records to the government "if the provider, in good faith, believes that an emergency involving danger of death or serious physical injury to any person" calls for such a disclosure.

The Court further explained that the remedy of suppressing evidence is not available under either Georgia or federal law, and it went on to argue that Cricket's voluntary disclosure was in fact covered under the statutes. The company received information from law enforcement that established a good faith belief that there was an ongoing emergency and information in the company's possession was needed to identify a murder suspect. Thus, the Court found that the disclosure of information by the service provider was appropriate and Registe's motion to suppress was rightfully denied.

This case will set precedent for future cases involving individual's cellular phone data and the release of information to law enforcement. Critics of the Court's opinion feel that the current statutory regulations possibly create a situation where overzealous law enforcement officials can get around procedural barriers like warrants or subpoenas to access electronic information from cell phone and Internet service providers (ISP's). They fear that law enforcement will abuse their power to obtain information and will characterize the need for the information as more urgent than necessary in order to obtain the evidence.

For more information on this case please use the following links:

Georgia Supreme Court denies Michael Registe's cellphone appeal

Registe v. Georgia

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