12 INVESTIGATES: Warrantless cell phone searches

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - Do police need a warrant to track you down with your cell phone? A major court ruling says no.

The 2 to 1 decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals means police officers don't need probable cause when asking a telephone company to help them track a person down. The ruling overturns a lower court decision that said police needed a warrant to get that information.

Your phone isn't just a phone anymore. It's also a tracking device, and police are dialing up the cell phone companies more and more, often asking for specific information - like a user's whereabouts or even call log.

In response to a congressional inquiry, the top cell phone companies finally revealed just how many times they've handed over user's cellphone data to the FBI and other law enforcement agencies.

Turns out, they responded to an estimated 1.3 million demands for subscribers information last year alone.

Law enforcement argues tracking cell phones without warrants can save lives. Investigators say they do it if they need to solve a crime or if they believe somebody is in danger.

In February, we uncovered that Richmond, Chesterfield and Henrico County all use this tactic.

According to the ruling, you buy the cell phone with the understanding it must send a signal to a nearby cell tower. The court says that data is clearly a business record and can be collected by investigators.

The American Civil Liberties Union calls the decision a big blow to American's privacy rights. This case could ultimately end up in the hands of the U.S. Supreme Court justices.

Copyright 2013 WWBT NBC12.  All rights reserved.