HOUSTON (AP) — Authorities only need a court order and not a more stringent search warrant to obtain cellphone records that can be used to track a person's movements, a federal appeals court ruled on Tuesday.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned an order by a Houston federal judge who had said cellphone data is constitutionally protected from intrusion and can only be acquired with a search warrant.

In 2011, U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes had upheld a magistrate judge's 2010 ruling that had denied a request by federal authorities in three separate criminal investigations to compel cellphone companies to provide — without a search warrant — 60 days of records for several phones.

In overturning Hughes' order, the appeals court in New Orleans said such data is a business record that belongs to the cellphone provider. It also said its collection by authorities does not have to meet a probable cause standard as outlined under the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unlawful search and seizure and requires a search warrant.

"We understand the cell phone users may reasonably want their location information to remain private ... But the recourse for these desires is in the market or the political process: in demanding that service providers do away with such records ... or in lobbying elected representatives to enact statutory protections. The Fourth Amendment, safeguarded by the courts, protects only reasonable expectations of privacy," the three-judge panel wrote in its 2-1 decision.

The cellphone data authorities had requested was being sought under the Stored Communications Act, part of the Electronics Communications Privacy Act.

The appeals court said under the Stored Communications Act, authorities have the option of obtaining a court order — which has a lower legal standard than a search warrant. With a court order, authorities only have to demonstrate there are "reasonable grounds" to believe the information would be relevant to an investigation.

Unlike the National Security Agency's recently publicized program that seized phone records in bulk through court orders approved by a secret court, the cellphone records sought in this case related to specific investigations and their seizure had to be approved through regular and established legal procedures.

Angela Dodge, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Houston, which had fought Hughes' order, said her office was pleased by Tuesday's ruling.

"We are gratified that the court found we acted in a manner consistent with the law at the time. We felt we interpreted the law correctly and welcome the agreement of the 5th Circuit," Dodge said in an emailed statement.

In court documents, prosecutors had argued that since such cellphone data are actually business records owned by the providers, customers have no reasonable expectation of privacy.

Officials with the American Civil Liberties Union, which had filed legal briefs in the case asking that the rulings by Hughes and the magistrate judge be upheld, said they were disappointed with the 5th Circuit's decision.

"This ruling fails to recognize that Americans do in fact have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their cell phone location information. Where you go can reveal a great deal about your life, and people don't think that carrying a cell phone around means that someone can get a detailed record of their movement for days or even months on end," said Catherine Crump, a staff attorney with the ACLU. "The government should not be able to access this personal, sensitive information without getting a warrant based on probable cause. Unfortunately, the 5th Circuit's decision allows exactly that."

Federal and state courts have been divided over the issue.

Earlier this month, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled all law enforcement officers in that state must get a search warrant based on probable cause if they want access to cellphone locating data.

Earlier this year, both Maine and Montana passed legislation requiring authorities to obtain a search warrant to get location information from a person's cellphone.

Crump said she believes this issue will probably have to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

"This question is one of crucial significance to every American that carries a cellphone," she said.

___

Follow Juan A. Lozano at http://www.twitter.com/juanlozano70

Loading Slideshow...
  • Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.)

    Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said the court order for telephone records was part of a three-month renewal of an ongoing practice, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/huff-wires/20130606/us-nsa-phone-records-feinstein/" target="_blank">the Associated Press reported</a>. "It’s called protecting America," Feinstein said at a Capitol Hill news conference.

  • Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.)

    Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/06/verizon-phone-records-nsa_n_3397058.html?utm_hp_ref=politics" target="_blank">said</a> "the administration owes the American public an explanation of what authorities it thinks it has."

  • Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.)

    Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) thought everyone "should just calm down." "Right now I think everyone should just calm down and understand this isn't anything that's brand new," Reid <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/06/verizon-phone-records-nsa_n_3397058.html?utm_hp_ref=politics" target="_blank">said</a>.

  • Former Vice President Al Gore

  • Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.)

    Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said in a statement: "This type of secret bulk data collection is an outrageous breach of Americans’ privacy."

  • Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.)

    Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he was <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/06/lindsey-graham-nsa_n_3396223.html?1370532449" target="_blank">"glad" the NSA was collecting phone records. </a> "I don’t mind Verizon turning over records to the government if the government is going to make sure that they try to match up a known terrorist phone with somebody in the United States," Graham said in an interview on "Fox and Friends."

  • Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.)

    Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) also claimed that reports of the NSA collecting phone records was "nothing particularly new." "Every member of the United States Senate has been advised of this," Chambliss<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/06/verizon-phone-records-nsa_n_3397058.html?utm_hp_ref=politics" target="_blank"> said</a>. "And to my knowledge we have not had any citizen who has registered a complaint relative to the gathering of this information."

  • Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.)

    Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) found the NSA collecting phone records <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/06/verizon-phone-records-nsa_n_3397058.html?utm_hp_ref=politics" target="_blank">"troubling."</a> "The fact that all of our calls are being gathered in that way -- ordinary citizens throughout America -- to me is troubling and there may be some explanation, but certainly we all as citizens are owed that, and we're going to be demanding that," Corker <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/06/verizon-phone-records-nsa_n_3397058.html?utm_hp_ref=politics" target="_blank">said</a>.

  • Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas)

  • Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah)