As cell phones have risen in popularity, criminal prosecutors now use cell phone records to build their cases. Cell phone records can show such records as calls made or received, text messages, and even proximity to cell towers. Although cell phone records do not provide specific GPS coordinates of a person’s whereabouts, prosecutors often rely on the location of a cell tower to relay the general location of a criminal defendant at the time the alleged crime occurred.The St. Petersburg murder trial of a man accused of killing a confidential informant is relying heavily on testimony derived from a review of cell-tower data that allegedly implicates the defendant. The court heard testimony from a detective who reviewed the defendant’s cell phone records on the night of the alleged murder. His testimony stated that the defendant made calls to the victim moments before the shooting occurred, allegedly to set up a fake drug deal as a way to lure the victim onto a deserted street. In addition, the detective’s testimony traced the approximate location of the defendant, stating that the defendant allegedly picked up an accomplice, drove to the area of the crime, and then went to a hotel room, where he met with other alleged accomplices. The detective tested this theory by driving the same route and confirming that the same cell towers that picked up the defendant’s calls also picked up his calls along the way.
Although criminal prosecutions often rely on cell phone records, Florida law does not give law enforcement free access to those records. Florida Statute section 934.23 authorizes law enforcement to require the disclosure of cell phone records from an electronic communication service only pursuant to a warrant issued by a judge of a competent jurisdiction. In order to obtain a warrant, the law enforcement officer is required to offer specific facts showing that there are reasonable grounds to believe the contents of an electronic communication are relevant to an ongoing criminal investigation.
If law enforcement officials obtain a warrant, the electronic communication service, such as a wireless provider, may be required to disclose certain defined types of information. For instance, records of call duration, cell phone type, subscriber number or identity, credit card associated with customer’s phone, and phone connection records are all available to law enforcement officials under Florida law. These records may provide the type of evidence prosecutors need to establish the facts of a crime, but they are only legally available with a warrant.