Supreme Court: Government Must Obtain A Warrant to Collect Cellphone Location Data

The Supreme Court recently ruled 5-4 to protect “deeply revealing” records associated with cell-site location information (CSLI) by generally requiring the Government to obtain a warrant in order to collect location data about the customers of cellphone companies. In Carpenter v. United States, the defendant was accused of several counts of armed robbery at Radio Shacks and other stores in the Detroit area. Prosecutors relied on 127 days of records that placed Carpenter’s phone at 12,898 locations. These locations were provided by his cell phone company, which placed him in the area of the robberies when they took place. The Government acquired these records through a court order under the Stored Communications Act, where they only needed to prove reasonable grounds for believing that the records were “relevant and material to an ongoing investigation”—a much lower burden than the probable cause necessary to issue a warrant.

Old Supreme Court decisions, in considering digital information, relied on the third party doctrine, which states that a suspect has no reasonable expectation of privacy in information voluntarily turned over to a third party. In Smith v. Maryland (1979), the Supreme Court held that the defendant did not have an expectation of privacy in the numbers dialed from his landline phone and that this information could be used against him. However, Chief Justice Roberts wrote that the third party doctrine as applied to cell phones is of limited use in the age of digital data because of the “pervasive and insistent part of daily life” that cell phones and the services they provide have become. Carpenter v. United States (citing Riley v. California, which required a warrant for cell phone searches). Additionally, the Court notes that cell phones log CSLI, and store that data for five years, without any affirmative act by the user beyond turning on the device.

Chief Justice Roberts continued by stating that digital data in the form of CSLI can provide a comprehensive, detailed, and intrusive overview of private affairs, analogizing CSLI to GPS information, information held previously in United States v. Jones to require a warrant. “As with GPS information, the timestamped data provides an intimate window into a person’s life, revealing not only his particular movements, but through them his ‘familial, political, professional, religious, and sexual associations.’” Carpenter v. United States (citing United States v. Jones).

In dissent, Justice Kennedy argued that the distinctions drawn by the majority “will frustrate principled application of the Fourth Amendment in many routine yet vital law enforcement operations… to help the Government develop probable cause to apprehend some of the nation’s most dangerous criminals.” Justice Alito opined that a “blizzard” of litigation will ensue from this decision and valuable investigative practices the Government relies on will no longer be legitimate.

Chief Justice Roberts countered the concerns of the dissenters by explaining that the CSLI technology allows wireless carriers currently to have the capability to pinpoint a cell phone location within 50 meters. While this decision issues a general requirement for a warrant in requesting CSLI, the decision makes exceptions for exigent circumstances, such as “the need to pursue a fleeing suspect, protect individuals who are threatened with imminent harm or prevent the imminent destruction of evidence.” The decision also limits the requirement to cases where the suspect has a legitimate privacy interest in records held by third parties.

To read this case in full, see:

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