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GA Supreme Court: No Standing to Contest Illegally Obtained Text Messages

November 10, 2014

In Hampton v. State, the Georgia Supreme Court held that a defendant did not have standing to contest the unlawful discovery of text messages obtained by the police via a subpoena to the cell phone provider.

Although the police failed to obtain a search warrant for the records, as required by Federal and Georgia law, the defendant was not the registered account holder with the cell phone provider nor was he an authorized user on the account.

Under Federal and Georgia law (18 USC § 2703, OCGA § 16-11-66.1), law enforcement must obtain a search warrant in order to require a cell phone provider to disclose the contents of a wire or electronic communication. The statute limits this disclosure only to communications within the last 180 days. A subpoena may be used only to demand transactional records about such a communication, such as the telephone numbers between which it went, the time it occurred, or the subscriber information.

The defendant argued that he had a right to suppress the text messages because they were obtained without a warrant. The Court noted, however, that “a criminal defendant has standing to suppress evidence obtained through an illegal search or seizure only in the situation in which his or her own rights are violated.” A defendant who is only harmed by admission of the evidence does not have standing to seek suppression.

The cell phone in question was registered to a Terric White. The defendant did not produce any evidence showing a legal link to the account, that he had an ownership interest in it, or that he was an authorized user on the account. The Court held that he therefore did not have a privacy interest in the cell phone records obtained by the police. As a result, the Court concluded that he had no standing to seek suppression of the text messages obtained by way of the subpoena—even though the police did, in fact, violate Federal and State law in obtaining the records without a search warrant.

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