Supreme Court Rules Warrant Needed for Cellphone Location Data

In a 5-4 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court on June 22 said law enforcement generally needs a search warrant if it wishes to track a person’s location through cell phone records over an extended period of time. The ruling is considered a huge win for privacy rights advocates.

Carpenter v. United States is the first case with regard to phone location data that the highest court in the country has ruled on, making it a landmark decision on how police departments can use technology in the process of building a case. The court heard arguments in the case on November 29.

The original case stemmed from a series of armed robberies of Radio Shacks and other stores in the Detroit area starting in 2010. Timothy Carpenter, the defendant of the case, was sentenced to 116 years in federal prison following his convictions for nearly a dozen crimes--mostly firearm offenses and robberies made during a period of four months.

Law enforcement helped apprehend Carpenter by obtaining cellphone data showing him in the vicinity of the crimes. Approximately 127 days’ worth of information, consisting of 12,898 location points from Carpenter’s carriers MetroPCS and Sprint, were acquired without a warrant based on probable cause.

The lower courts previously ruled in favor of the “third-party doctrine.” The doctrine holds that individuals who voluntarily provide information to third parties--such as banks, phone companies, or Internet service providers (ISPs)--have “no reasonable expectation of privacy.”

In the Supreme Court’s ruling, Chief Justice Roberts wrote the government’s searches of Carpenter’s phone records were deemed a Fourth Amendment search. Chief Justice Roberts found support only from the court’s liberal members, relying on justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Stephen Breyer for his majority.

"The question we confront today is how to apply the Fourth Amendment to a new phenomenon: the ability to chronicle a person's past movements through the record of his cell phone signals," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote. "We decline to grant the state unrestricted access to a wireless carrier's database of physical location information."

Until this recent decision, access to your cellphone data was considerably easy for law enforcement to gain access. All they needed was to obtain a subpoena and serve it on your cellphone carrier, which would then comply and provide the police with all your location data.

AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. combined to receive over 100,000 requests related to criminal cases a year for cellphone location information. According to a court brief filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a majority of those requests are made without a warrant.

However, the ruling will not affect law enforcement’s ability to track a person in real-time using cell data. Chief Justice Roberts mentions fleeing suspects, preventing the imminent destruction of evidence, and protecting individuals who are threatened with imminent harm in the opinion.

If you have been arrested for a crime in Cleveland, OH, contact Patituce & Associates and let us help you protect your rights and future today.