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North Carolina Appeals Court Strikes Blow to Privacy Rights

Posted on in Privacy

Earlier this year, the ACLU of North Carolina submitted a brief in the case of Paul Perry, who was arrested and charged with drug trafficking after police tracked his location in real time through cell phone data provided by AT&T. The location data allowed police to track him to a hotel in Raleigh, and even to figure out which part of the hotel he was in. Police did not apply for or receive a search warrant in Perry’s case. 

In our brief, we argued that the Fourth Amendment’s ban on unreasonable searches and seizures means that any time police seek to use cell phone location data to locate a person, law enforcement should first obtain a warrant showing probable cause of criminal activity. That position is supported by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which has jurisdiction over North Carolina and ruled in April in United States v. Graham that the government should obtain a search warrant “when it obtains and inspects a cell phone user’s historical [cell-site location information] for an extended period of time.”

But earlier this week the North Carolina Court of Appeals rejected the Fourth Circuit’s logic when, in a blow to privacy rights for all North Carolinians, the court ruled that police did not violate the Fourth Amendment when they searched Perry’s cell phone location records without a warrant.

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RALEIGH – A coalition of human rights groups today sent a letter asking the United States Department of Justice to open an investigation into the use of solitary confinement in North Carolina prisons. The letter comes weeks after President Obama ordered the Justice Department to review the use of solitary confinement across the country and criticized the practice in a major speech on criminal justice reform.  

The 15-page letter – signed by North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services, the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, the ACLU of North Carolina, the University of North Carolina School of Law Human Rights Policy Seminar, the UNC Center for Civil Rights, and North Carolina Stop Torture Now – chronicles the recent deaths of several inmates held in solitary confinement in North Carolina, as well as the mistreatment and horrific conditions suffered by countless more. One of those prisoners, Michael Anthony Kerr, a 53-year-old former Army sergeant diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, died of dehydration in March 2014 after spending 35 days in solitary confinement. In the letter, the groups document North Carolina’s failure to provide adequate resources for prison mental health services and explain how inmates with mental illness are disciplined for manifestations of their illness and often released directly to the community after months or years in isolation.  

“Understaffed, underfunded, and plagued by arbitrary standards, insufficient oversight, and inadequate resources for inmates with mental illness, North Carolina’s solitary confinement regime must change,” the letter reads. “However, governmental efforts and calls from the media and the public have resulted in little meaningful reform.  Every day that the status quo endures without intervention, North Carolina’s system for housing inmates in solitary confinement claims more victims to needless suffering and death.”

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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – A federal judge today dismissed a civil rights lawsuit filed against Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson by the U.S. Department of Justice, which charged that under Johnson’s leadership, the Alamance County Sheriff’s Office unlawfully targeted Latino residents for investigation, traffic stops, arrests, seizures, and other enforcement actions.

“Today's decision flies in the face of a mountain of evidence that Sheriff Johnson and the Alamance County Sheriff's Office engaged in discriminatory policing,” said Carolyna Caicedo Manrique, Staff Attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina (ACLU-NC). “During the trial, the Department of Justice presented expert testimony that Latinos in Alamance County were seven times more likely to be stopped and cited than non-Latinos in the community. This profiling was no accident. According to witnesses, Sheriff Johnson repeatedly and explicitly instructed his deputies to target Latinos, at one point even telling them to ‘go get me some Mexicans.’ We urge the Department of Justice to appeal this miscarriage of justice in order to ensure all Alamance County residents can again have confidence in their Sheriff's department.”

The ACLU and other groups have been receiving complaints about Johnson, his deputies, and their treatment of Latinos for years. A 2012 statistical analysis commissioned by DOJ found that along three major Alamance County highways, ACSO deputies were approximately 4, 9, and 10 times more likely, respectively, to stop Latino drivers than similarly situated non-Latino drivers. The lawsuit listed examples of Latino drivers being followed by Alamance deputies for long stretches of time and then pulled over for little or no reason. Witnesses also testified about numerous incidents in which Johnson and other ACSO employees expressed prejudice against Latino residents.

By Benjamin Holt, Legal Fellow, ACLU-NC Legal Foundation

Yesterday, the North Carolina Court of Appeals heard arguments in Perry v. State of North Carolina, a case that asks whether the government should be allowed to track your location in real time using your cell phone without first obtaining a warrant. 

As we’ve discussed previously, real time cell phone tracking reveals private, invasive, and increasingly precise information about your location and movements. Whenever your phone is turned on—even if you enable its location privacy settings—your cell phone service provider is able to determine with increasing accuracy where your cell phone is located.

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