On June 22, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of digital privacy. In
a 5-4 decision, the justices said law enforcement needs a search warrant
to obtain cellphone location data as evidence for trials, changing the
way how police can use technology to build their cases.
Carpenter. V. United States is the first case regarding phone location
information that the Supreme Court has ruled on. Timothy Carpenter was
convicted in several armed robberies at Radio Shack and T-Mobile stores
in Michigan and Ohio with the help of past cellphone location data that
pinned him to the scenes of the crimes. Law enforcement pulled together
over 127 days’ worth of data from 12,898 different locations.
The lower courts ruled that cellphone location data isn’t protected
by the Fourth Amendment and, therefore, didn’t require a warrant.
However, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the government’s searches
of Carpenter’s phone records were considered a Fourth Amendment search.
Roberts explained that the decision did not resolve other hotly-contested
digital privacy issues, such as whether law enforcement needs warrants
to access real-time cellphone location data to track criminal suspects.
The ruling also has no bearing on “traditional surveillance techniques,”
including data collection for national security purposes and security cameras.
Roberts was joined by the court’s four liberal justices in the majority.
By contrast, the court’s other four conservatives dissented.
This was the third decision in recent years in which the high court has
resolved significant cases regarding how criminal law applies to modern
technology, ruling against police each time. In 2014, it ruled that law
enforcement must obtain a warrant to search a person’s cellphone
content when the user is arrested. Two years before that decision, the
court said that a warrant is required to put a GPS tracking device on
For more information about your Fourth Amendment rights,
Santa Barbara criminal defense attorney at
Appel & Morse today.