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No Expectation of Privacy in Cell Phone Numbers

A New Jersey appeals court recently ruled that a criminal suspect has no reasonable expectation of privacy in his cell phone number.

By Alice Cheng

In State v. DeFranco, the defendant schoolteacher was charged with sexual assault of a former student. Defendant filed a motion to suppress evidence of a telephone conversation with the victim, which was intercepted by the police with the victim’s consent. The Appellate Division upheld the trial court’s denial of the motion, determining that the defendant had no reasonable expectation of privacy in the cell phone number used to make the call. The defendant had disclosed the cell phone number to the school where he taught, and the number had been given to a policeman prior to the interception.

The court determined that, unlike long-distance billing information and banking records, the cell phone number was “simply a number.” Additionally, the defendant had in the past disclosed his number to the victim and expressed no surprise when contacted by the victim via cell phone, suggesting that he had no reasonable expectation of privacy in his cell phone number. Under the circumstances, the court found nothing unreasonable in the police officer obtaining the number from the school.

If the court had found that the defendant had a reasonable expectation of privacy in his cell phone number, then the number could be acquired only through a search warrant or grand jury subpoena (neither of which had been obtained).

Under U.S. federal law and in most states, including New Jersey, the monitoring of telephone calls (or wiretapping) by local and state law enforcement is permitted with the consent of at least one party to the call.