In a 5-4 ruling on June 22, the Supreme Court imposed limits on the ability
of law enforcement to obtain cellphone data pinpointing the past location
of criminal suspects in a significant win for digital privacy rights and
a drawback for law enforcement agencies.
In the decision written by conservative Chief Justice John Roberts, the
courts ruled in favor of Timothy Carpenter (Carpenter v. United States),
who was sentenced to a 116-year prison sentence due to his role in a string
of armed robberies at Radio Shack and T-Mobile stores in Michigan and
Ohio. While law enforcement had witnesses and surveillance footage placing
Carpenter at the locations at which the robberies occurred, they also
had 127 days’ worth of cellphone location data which tracked Carpenter’s
movement, including where he slept and how often he went to church.
The lower courts then ruled in favor of the government, stating that collection
of location data was lawful under the “third-party doctrine,”
which allow law enforcement to view records without a warrant when people
allowed third parties, such as banks or telephone companies, to have them.
In other words, customers voluntarily give up their right to privacy for
However, the high court did not see it that way. When the doctrine was
created four decades ago, such records were not as revealing and no one
fathomed that millions of Americans will carry a small device that could
track their every movement.
Chief Justice Roberts wrote:
“Although such records are generated for commercial purposes, that
distinction does not negate Carpenter’s anticipation of privacy
in his physical location. Mapping a cell phone’s location over the
course of 127 days provides an all-encompassing record of the holder’s
whereabouts. As with GPS information, the time-stamped 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.’... And like GPS monitoring,
cell phone tracking is remarkably easy, cheap, and efficient compared
to traditional investigative tools. With just the click of a button, the
Government can access each carrier’s deep repository of historical
location information at practically no expense.”
Roberts was joined by the four most liberal justices that make up the majority.
By contrast, the four conservative justices dissented.
In recent years, the Supreme Court has taken steps to interpret the Fourth
Amendment protection against “unreasonable searches and seizures”
to fit today’s technological-reliant society. In 2012, the court
restricted the government’s use of GPS devices to track a vehicle.
Two years later, it ruled that police cannot search cellphones without
For more information about our constitutional rights,
Daytona Beach criminal defense attorneys at
Stepniak & Park today.