• SCOTUS Cell Phone Decision

    Author : The Blanch Law Firm July 24, 2018

    The Supreme Court recently made a landmark decision regarding the Fourth Amendment and the power of the state to access an individual’s cell phone location information.

    In the case, Carpenter v. United States, Timothy Carpenter was prosecuted as the primary suspect in a series of armed robberies across Michigan and Ohio. The police used cell tower information, which placed him at the various robbery sites. The information was crucial in leading to his conviction, where he was sentenced to 116 years in prison. Upon appeal, Carpenter claimed that the police invaded his privacy in violation of the constitution by getting this information without first obtaining a search warrant.

    In a 5-4 decision, the Court corrected the prevailing legal theory that if someone voluntarily shares information with a third party (like a cell phone service provider), then the police can obtain information without a search warrant. Justice John Roberts disagreed, arguing that the cell phone location information is a ‘near perfect’ tool to allow government surveillance, and compared it to an electronic monitoring ankle bracelet. The routine court orders that were previously used in cases like this require the police only to show that they are seeking relevant information – a search warrant requires police to meet a far higher standard. The Chief Justice state that it was of no import that the records were in the hands of a third party – a statement that is a significant break from earlier decisions of the Court.

    The records obtained in this case showed 127 days of records that disclosed whether the defendant had been asleep at home, or even if he had attended church on Sunday mornings. This information, according to the court, was entitled to privacy protection. The information obtained reveals intimate and comprehensive details into someone’s revealing family, political and religious associations.

    While this is good news, generally speaking, for individuals and criminal defense attorneys, the Chief Justice ensured that his decision was narrow. He stated that “a warrant is required in the rare case where the suspect has a legitimate privacy interest in records held by a third party.” The ruling will not change the ‘routine use’ of subpoenas to get financial, bank or other business records. It also will continue to allow police to get cell phone locations records without a warrant if there is an emergency situation, such as a kidnapping or a threat of imminent danger. It also does not touch the collection techniques of issues involving foreign affairs or national security, but it does ensure that there is now some limit to the progression of science against the Fourth Amendment.

    The dissent focused primarily on the fact that the cell phone records do not belong to the individual, but rather belong to the service provider. Therefore, the Fourth Amendment protection which provides security to individuals from unreasonable searches does not actually apply to the individual – but to the service provider. The dissenters claimed that this decision served only to frustrate and confuse the application of the Fourth Amendment to law enforcement operations.

    However, the Court has been inching closer to discomfort with the government’s access to digital data. In United States v. Jones, the Court limited the ability of police to use GPS devices when tracking a suspects’ movements, and in Riley v California, the court issued a requirement to obtain a warrant before searching cell phones.