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Law School Case Brief

United States v. Riley - 858 F.3d 1012


Location data emitted by a voluntarily procured cell phone cannot be subject to a reasonable expectation of privacy, even if the cell-phone user had no reason to expect that the government would compel the service provider to disclose those data. Where the defendant's movements could have been observed by any member of the public, it can not possibly be a Fourth Amendment violation for law-enforcement officers to monitor those movements by using cell-phone location data just because such electronic monitoring was more efficient than relying on visual surveillance alone.


A state court in Kent County, Michigan, issued an arrest warrant for defendant Montai Riley, having found probable cause to believe that he had committed armed robbery of a local convenience store on June 22. Riley had allegedly entered the store, pointed a gun at the clerk, instructed her to open the safe, and fled on foot with a "money box and money bags." On June 25, Riley purchased a cell phone serviced by AT&T. A member of Riley's family gave this phone's telephone number to Riley's girlfriend "so she could contact him while he was 'on the run.'" Riley's girlfriend in turn disclosed the number to Special Deputy Joel Bowman, a member of the United States Marshal Service Grand Rapids Apprehension Team. On June 26, Bowman applied for and received an order from a another Michigan state court compelling AT&T to produce telecommunications records of Riley's cell phone under federal electronic-surveillance laws. The court order compelled disclosure of call metadata such as inbound and outbound phone numbers and cell-site location (CSL) data, as well as real-time tracking or "pinging" of the latitude and longitude coordinates of Riley's phone. Within hours, agents located Riley in Memphis, Tennessee and arrested him at a hotel. A firearm was found in his possession. At trial in federal district court in Tennessee, Riley filed a motion to suppress the firearm on grounds that the means used to locate him violated his Fourth Amendment rights. The motion was denied. Riley pleaded guilty to being a felon in possession of a firearm, reserving his right to appeal the denial of his motion to suppress, and was sentenced to 41 months of imprisonment.


Did the district court err in holding that the Government did not violate Riley's Fourth Amendment rights by compelling AT&T to disclose, and then by subsequently using, the real-time GPS location of Riley's cell phone over the course of approximately seven hours?




The appellate court affirmed the district court's judgment. The court ruled that under United States v. Skinner, 690 F.3d 772, 781 (6th Cir. 2012), the Government's detection of Riley's whereabouts, which included tracking Riley's real-time GPS location data, did not amount to a Fourth Amendment search. The Government used Riley's GPS location data to learn that Riley was hiding out at hotel in Tennessee—but only after inquiring of the front-desk clerk did the Government ascertain Riley's specific room number in order to arrest him. The GPS tracking thus provided no greater insight into Riley's whereabouts than what Riley exposed to public view as he traveled "along public thoroughfares" to the hotel lobby. Therefore, under Skinner, Riley had no reasonable expectation of privacy against such tracking, and the district court properly denied Riley's motion to suppress evidence found upon Riley's arrest.

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