On November 11, 2020, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decided the United States v. Beaudion[i], in which the court examined whether a person had standing to challenge the constitutionality of search warrant to obtain the cell phone GPS location information of his companion. The facts of Beaudion are as follows:
During a narcotics investigation by the Monroe Police Department (“MPD”), multiple drug dealers and cooperating witnesses identified Beaudion and Davis as their suppliers. One witness informed MPD Officer Heckard that Beaudion and Davis were planning to drive from Houston to Monroe with four pounds of meth. The witness then called Davis on her cell phone, [XXX]-[XXX]-0889, to arrange a meth deal. Heckard listened in.
Heckard used that information and Davis’s cell phone number to request a search warrant. In the warrant application, Heckard asked for the GPS coordinates of Davis’s cell phone over the next sixteen hours. Louisiana District Judge Larry Jefferson found probable cause to support the request and issued the warrant. Heckard promptly faxed the warrant to Verizon’s law-enforcement division. Verizon agreed to provide the longitude and latitude coordinates of Davis’s phone as many times as Heckard called to request them within the sixteen-hour window. Heckard called six times. Each time he received a verbal recitation of the most recent GPS data and an estimated margin of error. The coordinates confirmed that Davis (or at least her phone) was headed east toward Monroe.
Heckard’s final call to Verizon indicated that Davis was passing through Shreveport and on her way to Monroe. So Heckard and other MPD officers spread out along the interstate and waited for Davis to arrive. The officers stopped the car, searched it, and discovered the meth. Then they arrested Davis and Beaudion and recovered Davis’s phone from her purse.[ii]
Beaudion was subsequently charged with federal drug violations. He filed a motion to suppress the evidence and argued that the warrant that authorized the GPS tracking of Davis’s cell phone was defective. The district court denied the motion to suppress. Beaudion pled guilty with a right to appeal the denial of the motion to suppress. He appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
On appeal, Beaudion argued (1) that the search warrant violated the Fourth Amendment and (2) that the search violated the Stored Communications Act (SCA).
Standing Under the Fourth Amendment
The court first examined whether the search violated the Fourth Amendment. The court discussed that, in order for a person to argue that their constitutional rights were violated, the person must have “standing” to challenge the search. The court stated
[T]he Fourth Amendment is not a weapon that uninjured parties get to wield on behalf of others. As with the common law that preceded it, the Fourth Amendment protects individuals’ security “in their persons,” “their . . . houses,” “their . . . papers,” and “their . . . effects.” Ibid. (emphasis added). It does not protect individuals’ security in the property of someone else… Modern doctrine incorporates this history in the requirement of Fourth Amendment “standing.” This “standing” concept ensures that those invoking the Amendment can vindicate only their personal security against unreasonable searches and seizures. [iii]
The court then discussed that there are two ways a person can show that they have standing. First, the person can show that there was a physical intrusion into an area where the person has a property interest. Or, second, the person can show that they had a “reasonable expectation of privacy” in the area that was searched.
The court then set out to determine whether Beaudion had standing to challenge the search of Davis’s cell phone GPS location information. To start the analysis, the court first had to identify the “place” that was searched. The search warrant authorized the following:
GPS coordinates and registered owner information of cell phone number [XXX]-[XXX]-0889. This is to include its location from current date and time of August 15, 2017 at 0813 hours to August 16, 2017 at 0000 hours. Cell phone number [XXX]-[XXX]-0889 is activated through Verizon Wireless and is currently being used by Jessica Nicole Davis.[iv]
The court noted that there was no evidence that the officer exceeded the scope of the search warrant, nor was there evidence that the officer ever asked for the location of Beaudion’s phone. The court then stated that the “place” that was searched was “the GPS coordinates of Davis’s phone.” Beaudion argued that because he was with Davis, he was a “target” of GPS location information and that included him in the scope of the search. However, the court of appeals disagreed and limited the scope to only what was specifically requested in the warrant.
Having determined the “place” searched, the court of appeals next set out to determine if Beaudion had either a property interest in the place searched or a reasonable expectation of privacy in the place searched. Clearly, Davis had both a property interest and reasonable expectation of privacy in her phone’s GPS location, but she did not challenge the search. Rather, her companion, Beaudion challenged the search. He argued that because he sometimes used Davis’s phone, sometimes accessed his FaceBook account from her phone, and sometimes used her phone to video their intimate activities, he had a reasonable expectation of privacy. However, the court of appeals disagreed and stated that even if Beaudion expected privacy in Davis’s phone, that expectation of privacy was not “reasonable” under the Fourth Amendment.
Beaudion also argued that the Supreme Court decision in Carpenter v. United States[v], in which the Court held that a person has reasonable expectation of privacy in his cell-site location information (CSLI) because it reveals the historical location information of a person because people carry their phones as they travel. However, the Fifth Circuit noted that this case does not help Beaudion because, in Carpenter, the Supreme Court held that a person has a reasonable expectation of privacy in their own cell site location information; this case did not hold that a third party has reasonable expectation of privacy in their companion’s cell site location information.
Therefore, the court of appeals held that Beaudion did not have standing to challenge the search of Davis’s cell phone GPS information.
The Reasonableness of the Search Under the Fourth Amendment
The court also noted that even if Beaudion had standing to challenge the search of Davis’s cell phone GPS information, he still must show that the search was unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment. The court stated
[T]he Court has also said that “reasonableness” requires a “warrant supported by probable cause” or else a “specific exception to the warrant requirement.” Carpenter, 138 S. Ct. at 2221 (quotation omitted). That framework applies to CSLI, see ibid., and we apply it to the GPS data collected here.
It is beyond dispute that Officer Heckard began tracking the GPS coordinates only after receiving a warrant. And Beaudion concedes that the warrant was “supported [by] probable cause with regard to [his] . . . illegal drug activities.” Those two facts make this an easy case. See United States v. Beverly, 943 F.3d 225, 234-35 (5th Cir. 2019) (denying motion to suppress CSLI obtained pursuant to a “warrant . . . supported by probable cause”).[vi]
As such, the court held that the search was reasonable under the Fourth Amendment.
The Stored Communications Act (SCA)
On appeals, Beaudion argued that the search was unreasonable because it failed to comply with the SCA.
Regarding the SCA, the court of appeals stated
The SCA creates various mechanisms by which a “governmental entity may require a provider of electronic communication service . . . to disclose a record or other information pertaining to a subscriber to or customer of such service.” 18 U.S.C. § 2703(c)(1). One such mechanism allows the Government to “obtain a warrant” from a state “court of competent jurisdiction” using “[s]tate warrant procedures.”[vii]
The court then observed that the officer obtained the search warrant from the Louisiana district court, which is a court of competent jurisdiction over criminal matters and authorized to issue search warrants. As such, the warrant complies with the SCA.
Beaudion also argued that the SCA required that the officer provide probable cause that the “subscriber or customer” was involved in criminal activity and the “subscriber or customer” of Davis’s phone is actually Davis’s parents. The court of appeals called this argument “borderline frivolous” and noted that the SCA authorized disclosure of information under a warrant that  complies with state warrant procedures and  provides “reasonable grounds to believe that the information sought is relevant …to an ongoing criminal investigation.”[viii] Both requirements were met in Beaudion’s case, therefore, this argument also failed.
Lastly, the court of appeals noted that even if the officer failed to comply with the SCA, the remedy for such violations is not suppression of evidence. The SCA provides sanctions for violations and exclusion of evidence is not one of those sanctions. In order for evidence to be excluded, Beaudion must show there was also a Fourth Amendment violation, and he has failed to do so.
As such, the court of appeals affirmed the denial of Beaudion’s motion to suppress.
[i] No. 19-30635 (5th Cir. Decided November 11, 2020)
[ii] Id. at 2
[iii] Id. at 9-10 (emphasis added)
[iv] Id. at 12
[v] 138 S. Ct. 2206 (2018)
[vi] Beaudion at 19
[vii] Id. at 19-20
[viii] Id. at 21