ACLU: US Attorney used GPS to track cell phones

Associated Press | April 23, 2009
By Angela Delli Santi

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - A former federal prosecutor running for governor approved the tracking of citizens through their cell phones without warrants while he was head of the U.S. Attorney's Office for New Jersey, civil rights attorneys said Thursday.

Christopher Christie, a former U.S. Attorney who is the Republican front-runner in the governor's race said all actions were approved by the court.

The American Civil Liberties Union released documents Thursday showing federal officials in New Jersey have gotten judges to approve the surveillance without showing evidence that a crime is taking place.

Tracking without a warrant disregards an internal U.S. Justice Department recommendation that prosecutors obtain probable cause warrants before gathering location data from cell phones.

Using a little-known GPS chip inside a cell phone, federal prosecutors can locate a person to within about 30 feet. They're also able to gather less exact location data by tracing mobile phone signals as they ping off cell towers.

The less rigorous standard of obtaining a court order rather than a warrant was used in 98 New Jersey cases since Sept. 11, 2001, resulting in 83 prosecutions, according to the documents. Two other New Jersey cases remain under seal.

Of the cases in which probable cause wasn't established, 19 allowed the most precise tracking available, the documents show. Those cases occurred after the November 2007 Justice Department recommendation that prosecutors seek warrants. Christie said he changed the policy to comply with Washington's recommendation 11 months later.

"There was no action of the U.S. Attorney's Office that was done without the consultation and approval of the court," Christie said Thursday. "Any suggestion to the contrary is ill-informed."

The documents released by the ACLU show that of states randomly sampled, New Jersey and Florida used GPS tracking without obtaining probable cause warrants. Four other states—California, Louisiana, Indiana, Nevada—and the District of Columbia reported having obtained GPS data only after showing probable cause.

The documents are part of an ongoing lawsuit by the ACLU and Electronic Frontier Foundation on how the government tracks cell phone users. The ACLU sought documents under the Freedom of Information Act to learn about the tracking because the cases are typically under court seal, ACLU lawyer Catherine Crump said.

Crump argued in court papers that government tracking without a probable cause warrant is a violation of the Constitution's Fourth Amendment, which guards against unreasonable search and seizure. Government prosecutors have argued that only a court order showing the tracking data is relevant to a criminal investigation is needed.

"A problem that we often face is that technology evolves faster than the law. This is an evolving legal issue," said Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office in Newark.

Christie was the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey for seven years before resigning Dec. 1. If he wins the party's primary in June, Christie would face Gov. Jon S. Corzine, a Democrat seeking a second term.

Acting U.S. Attorney for New Jersey Ralph J. Marra Jr. said GPS tracking is typically used in cases of "known, dangerous criminals or in the apprehension of fugitives."

In Florida, there were 63 cases since September 11, 2001 in which federal prosecutors obtained a court order to track suspects via cell phone. It's unclear how many resulted in prosecutions.


Associated Press reporter Beth DeFalco in Trenton contributed to this report.