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Should cell phone records be used as evidence?

There have been several crimes in Memphis that have had cell phone records used to prosecute defendants. In this litigation, cell phone records are frequently used as evidence in order to prove the location of a defendant. But how accurate are these records and should they be allowed as evidence?

Cellphone records often are used in criminal investigations to determine where the defendant was at a certain time. Authorities use the information from the cell tower that was used to send or receive a call in order to pinpoint a location. But how accurate is this information? Law enforcement officials have been using this information for years, saying that it is reliable. They verify the accuracy of the data by testing the strength and range of cell phone towers in the area of the crime scene.

Nonetheless, using this method to determine a defendant's whereabouts may not always be accurate. Cell phone signals may not always use the closest tower and can be routed to others, based on a variety of factors. Also, cell tower ranges vary greatly and can overlap. Furthermore, weather, types of equipment, call traffic and the time of day also can have an effect on a cell tower's range. There have been instances in which two people standing next to each other on their cell phones actually were connected to two different towers.

Since cell phone records are consistently used in criminal trials, it is important to make sure that these records are accurate. According to the available research, they may not always be accurate. This may mean that innocent people are being wrongly convicted of crimes that they did not commit. Convictions bring long-term consequences to defendants, including prison time. Therefore, it is important that all evidence against defendants in a trial be factual.

Source: The Washington Post, "Experts say law enforcement's use of cellphone records can be inaccurate", Tom Jackman, June 27, 2014

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