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Cellphone Technology: A Major Player in the Law Enforcement Arena

As the cellular telephone continues to become our primary means of communication, it’s only fitting that the underlying technology often finds itself in the forefront of all kinds of legal disputes. This is especially true in the criminal defense arena. Almost daily, we hear of a variety of criminal offenses, from drug trafficking to financial fraud to capital homicide, being detected and prosecuted because of law enforcement’s ability to access and exploit some basic technical information—the kind of information that’s attached to every cellphone call we make. It’s important for a criminal defense attorney to be aware of what a cellphone can say to a detective or federal agent—and, equally important, what type of information it cannot normally reveal.

What Is “Cell Site Information”?

We all know that a cellphone acts in the same way as the old-fashioned walkie-talkie: by transmitting radio waves from one receiver to another. Unlike a walkie-talkie, however, the signal transmitted from a cellphone does not travel directly to the recipient number. Instead, it is relayed from one or more specially designed towers, which amplify and transmit the signals along the line until they reach the recipient number. Generally speaking, each tower has an operating radius of 2 to 3 miles in any direction, so multiple towers are required to transmit a typical call.

As the signal reaches a given tower, certain data is collected: the transmitting and recipient numbers, the time the call is made, and the specific towers through which the signals are directed. This is the essence of “cell site information,” or “cell site data.”

So how does cell site data come into play in a criminal investigation? Well, first and most important, such data does not include the contents of a given conversation. That would require use of a wiretap, which cannot be deployed by law enforcement without a court order based on a showing of probable cause. So in a murder case, for example, in which prior calls were allegedly made between the suspect and the victim, the cell site data will not tell investigators what was said between the two. Nor will it pin down specifically where the cellphone was located at the time of the conversations, or of the murder itself. (Although federal and state law enforcement have brought us closer to that point with a scary new technology called “Stingray,” which I’ll discuss in an upcoming post.)

Rather, the cell site data can tell investigators whether the phone was within the radius of a particular tower at the time of the calls. If the crime scene lies within or near that radius, and the crime took place close in time to the calls, the likelihood increases that the subject was somewhere in the area of the scene. (Of course, this presumes that the subject is also the registered subscriber.) At this point, law enforcement will attempt to unearth supporting evidence (eyewitness accounts, for example) to further narrow down the suspect’s whereabouts.

The technology, as you can imagine, is rather intricate. In a criminal case in which the government is attempting to use cell site data against the accused, the defense attorney needs to not only become personally familiar with the process, but also to retain an expert who is intimately familiar with the technology, its capabilities, and also—perhaps most importantly—its limitations.

If You Think You May Need a Lawyer, You Do. Call NOW!!

If you or someone that you know has been accused or charged with a criminal offense in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, or anywhere else in Florida, you need to reach out to an attorney immediately. These cases can be complex, and the consequences of conviction are severe. If you think you may need a lawyer, you do.

Let the experienced and knowledgeable office of The Tony Moss Firm, L.L.C. provide you with the zealous defense that your case deserves. Call or contact the office today for a free and confidential consultation of your case.

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