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Is Cellphone Tracking Reliable Evidence? Many People Don't Think So

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If you watch the news or any type of crime-based drama television, you've probably heard of evidence from cellphone towers being used in a trial to bring someone to justice. However, should that sort of evidence really be allowed in court? Many people don't think so. Here's what you should know about the issue.

Cellphone tracking is a relatively new phenomenon. 

Evidence called "cellphone tracking" has been admitted into court trials fairly easily, especially for something that's so new. It may be a sign of the modern times, but people seem to instinctively believe in the accuracy of the information—which uses historical call records and "pings" off of cell towers as a cellphone passes within its radius as a means of tracking the cellphone's (and, presumably, the cellphone owner's) whereabouts. Perhaps because even attorneys don't understand how the system works, such evidence has rarely even been challenged in court—and it's used very frequently in both criminal and civil cases to "prove" someone's whereabouts. In 2011 alone, for example, the nine top cellphone carriers handled 1.3 million requests for information from police.

It isn't as reliable as people seem to believe.

However, many critics say that cellphone tracking is a "junk science" and shouldn't be allowed in courtrooms. While not entirely worthless, tracking does not have nearly the probative value that many people give it. In some cases, a cellphone tower can only tell you that a caller was somewhere within a 420-mile radius of it. While that might prove that a defendant was "somewhere" around an area, it certainly doesn't allow the prosecution to place them at the exact location of a crime.

Outgoing calls, for example, go to the nearest tower within your phone's range that has the clearest signal, which can be affected by anything from animal activity to weather, so it doesn't necessarily indicate where you really were. You could make four calls from the same spot and all four would originate from a different tower. Defense attorneys who are growing more educated on the science behind the calls are starting to question the validity of the "evidence" they provide in court in cases around the country.

Further complicating matters is that cellphone companies themselves will acknowledge that the same can't be said of incoming calls. This fact is actually a key piece of the evidence being used to request a new trial for Adnan Syed, whose 2000 murder conviction was the focus of much national media attention.

Is cellphone evidence being used against you in court? Talk to an attorney like those represented at about how to challenge its use in your trial—or how to counter its effect on jurors with scientific facts and experts of your own who can explain why this so-called evidence can't be trusted.