Accused’s Right to Privacy Questioned in San Francisco Robbery (CA Penal Code §211)

When it comes to police searches, there are very specific rules across the country and in the state of California (4th Amendment, U.S. Constitution).  The law attempts to create a balance between the rights of citizens and the rights of law enforcement agencies.  Yet, in the current age of technological advancements, including cellular phones, some of the traditional ways that law enforcement officials gather evidence in criminal cases have recently been brought into question.  When can anyone have a reasonable expectation of privacy in police searches?

In San Francisco, in 2009, a couple was robbed at gunpoint (CA Penal Code §211) in the Fort Mason area. The thief took the man’s wallet and the woman’s purse, which contained both her wallet and cell phone.  So, when representatives of the San Francisco Police Department spoke to the couple, the woman (Carolyn Fey) mentioned that her phone had a GPS tracking device.  The police then used this to track her phone to the Mission District, where they arrested a man named Lorenzo Barnes, who was in possession of the phone and the purse.  Fey acted as an eyewitness, identifying Barnes as the man who had stolen her things.

Barnes’s attorney attempted to liken the use of the GPS device to the recently outlawed practice of placing a tracking device to suspects’ vehicles.  But, the First District Court of Appeal has decided that privacy laws like this do not apply to stolen phones, where the permission of the owner has been given to track the item using its GPS device.  Here, in other words, privacy laws do not apply to the accused, but to the person whose belongings have been stolen.  Barnes’s sentence for armed robbery, of more than 13 years in prison, stands.