Police State/Civil Liberties

First in the Nation: Montana Requires a Warrant for Location Tracking

Allie Bohm

Montana just made history. It recently enacted the first state law in the nation (sponsored by Rep. Daniel Zolnikov (R-Billings)) requiring law enforcement to obtain a probable-cause warrant before tracking an individual based on his or her cell phone location information, social networking check-ins, or via a GPS tracking device in a criminal investigation. (A few states do have laws pertaining only to GPS tracking.)

The ACLU of Montana’s public policy director, Niki Zupanic, confessed her surprise that Montana was the first state in the nation to pass broad location-tracking protections. Perhaps Montanans, known for their love of freedom and privacy, intuitively understand how sensitive location information can be and how much where you go can reveal about who you are. (Are you going to gay bars, a mosque, a fundamentalist church, a gun store, an Alcoholic Anonymous meeting, a political protest?)

So what does this mean for the rest of the country? Many lawmakers don’t like to be out front. They prefer to know that the policy they are poised to enact has worked somewhere else before they bring it to their own backyard. Ever since we filed nationwide coordinated public records requests on cell phone location tracking, we have known that some law enforcement agencies in every region of the country obtain a warrant before tracking cell phone location. But now, for the first time, we will be able to say that a warrant is a statutory requirement statewide, and that Montanans are able to do effective law enforcement and protect individuals’ privacy.

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