Can Raleigh police monitor a suspect by working with cell phone carrier to trace his movement? | News

Can Raleigh police monitor a suspect by working with cell phone carrier to trace his movement?


  • Photo courtesy of surreynews under Creative Commons License

A man caught with heroin in his Raleigh hotel room wants the evidence suppressed because the police department monitored his physical movements in real-time by tracking his cell phone. 

After a jury found Paul Perry guilty of trafficking last February, he appealed the case to the N.C. Court of Appeals, which heard oral arguments last week. Perry, 32, is serving a 70-year prison sentence for his crime.

Perry's lawyer contends that the majority of courts in the United States have concluded the Stored Communications Act (under which the detective applied for the order to track Perry's cell phone) doesn't permit a court to order "real-time" as opposed to "historical" records. 

The U.S. Supreme Court has never addressed the question of whether people have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their location as disclosed by their cell phones. 

On Dec. 10, 2012, a Raleigh police detective learned from a confidential informant that Perry was an alleged drug dealer. The informant offered Perry's phone number. At the detective's request, a special superior court judge issued an order directing AT&T to provide cell site location information linked to the phone number over the next two days.

AT&T calculated the location of the cell phone from tower "hits" or "pings." Every 15 minutes that day, an AT&T official sent an email to the Raleigh detective, indicating the movement of the phone. Through this method, the detective could trace the phone the phone to a location within a range of 5 to 200 meters.

Eventually the detective tracked the phone to the Red Roof Inn on South Saunders Street, pinpointing it to a certain block of rooms, one of which had recently been open for a new guest. Officers began surveillance from a room next to it.

Officers observed a man come and go, and stopped him. The man had heroin in his possession. He explained that he bought it from the motel room.

The Raleigh detective began preparing a search warrant application, but while he was doing so, someone called to inform him that Perry was in the process of switching hotel rooms after learning his alleged customer had been stopped by police.

Officers arrested Perry and another woman after they left the hotel room. The woman, who carried a large amount of heroin, said it belonged to Perry. He in turn claimed that it belonged to the woman. 

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