Will cell phone experts go the way of bite mark experts and hair sample experts? A person serving a 20 year sentence based upon cell phone evidence hopes so, at least in his case.
An appeal before the Connecticut Supreme Court is set to force another judicial body to wade into the divided legal landscape nationwide. In this case, the defense claims that the trial court judge erred by admitting evidence that defendant’s cellphone “pinged,” or connected with, a cell tower near the crime scene around the same time as the robbery for which he was convicted.
Are Expert Qualifications The Culprit?
In the Connecticut case the defense lawyers are specifically challenging the ability of a police officer to interpret cell phone tower data. Courts are becoming more reticent to allow cell tower data to be used without the proper foundation from a highly qualified expert.
This is no different from the same emphasis in other disciplines of forensic science. The days of a police officer providing commentary on ballistics evidence have long since died. Today, a forensic scientist, properly trained and employing established techniques must be engaged.
The idea of a cell phone always picking up the closest tower isn’t necessarily true. Depending upon the type of phone, the type of service, the type of cell tower, the amount of cell traffic and other factors, a cell phone can be dialed many times from the exact same location and pick up many different towers somewhere in a four hundred square mile area.
Some argue that the entire science is baloney.
Is Cell Tower Forensics Junk Science?
U.S. District Judge Joan H. Lefkow of Chicago thought so. She ruled that an FBI agent could not testify about cellphone tower evidence because it hadn’t been generally accepted by the scientific community. However, it wasn’t a clear win for those seeking to discredit such evidence. The judge simply agreed that the FBI special agent’s “chosen methodology has received no scrutiny outside the law enforcement community.”
This doesn’t mean that all methodologies are invalid. And other courts agree. In fact, some are willing to accept both the admission of cell tower evidence and its interpretation by police testimony. Both the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver and the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta have upheld the use of police testimony about cellphone tower evidence.
Warnings From Carriers
However, there are clear indications that the future is not bright for this type of evidence.
In at least one case, one of the phone companies allegedly issued a warning along with the provision of raw cell phone record data. The carrier allegedly warned that cell phone tower data for incoming calls were not reliable for determining location. If this becomes a pattern, it spells a clear end to the era of the use of cell tower pings.
What’s The Future?
The use of cell tower data will die.
There’s a one word answer: apps.
Notice the conniption your phone has if you turn off location services. The intense pleading to reconsider that follows your denial of the downloading of a “free” app. If you feel unloved, unwanted, all you have to do is pick up your phone. You have to feel that every instant of your life must be of immense value given the reaction that ensues if you attempt to set it down or limit its access to your life.
Sadly, most people have no idea of the personal information that they are surrendering. Even some innocuous seeming game can come with sophisticated tracking. Your “free email” provider scans every word of every email you send and every keystroke of your web searches.
The unquenchable, ravenous desire of marketers to track your every move, your every web search, your every reaction to stimulus will render you incapable of committing a crime without being caught.
And what they don’t capture, the government will. It seems like every bill before the government is laced with an add-on that allows agencies to track us without our knowledge.
So somewhere in the two-front war against us, the much sexier and more accurate ways to pinpoint our every move will make using cell tower data just look like laziness.