Supreme Court says law enforcement generally needs a warrant to collect phone location...

Shawn Knight

TechSpot Staff
Staff member

The Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision on Friday ruled that law enforcement generally needs a warrant to collect cellphone location data from a wireless provider as evidence.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing for the majority, warned that the decision was limited in scope.

“We hold only 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 chief justice said.

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen G. Breyer and Elena Kagan concurred.

The case in question, Carpenter v. United States, No. 16-402, involved a string of armed robberies of Radio Shack and T-Mobile stores in Michigan and Ohio starting in 2010. At issue specifically was the fact that police obtained nearly 130 days of phone location data on Carpenter without a warrant.

The data provided 12,898 location points that cataloged Carpenter’s movements – and helped link him to the robberies – with an average of 101 data points per day. The data painted a clear picture of Carpenters whereabouts, including where he slept at night and if he went to church on Sunday mornings.

Up for debate was whether or not the prosecutors violated the Fourth Amendment in collecting the phone location data. According to Chief Justice Roberts, that information was entitled to privacy protection.

Allowing government access to cell-site records contravenes that expectation. 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 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.”

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Uncle Al

TS Evangelist
Getting a warrant in these times is no terribly difficult thing to do. That being said, it's clear that 4 judges do not value our right of reasonable privacy. They need to do to those four the same that happened when the court originally ruled on Imminent Domain two decades ago where by a group went in and had one of the judges private resident declared as Imminent Domain and served him with an eviction notice .... you can bet the court re-reviewed it's ruling on that one!
 

gamerk2

TS Evangelist
Getting a warrant in these times is no terribly difficult thing to do. That being said, it's clear that 4 judges do not value our right of reasonable privacy. They need to do to those four the same that happened when the court originally ruled on Imminent Domain two decades ago where by a group went in and had one of the judges private resident declared as Imminent Domain and served him with an eviction notice .... you can bet the court re-reviewed it's ruling on that one!
From a legal perspective, the law on the books basically says that only data that is stored "on site" belongs to the user. Since call site data is external, it's easy to argue that a warrant isn't required to access it.

The four dissenting judges were arguing "That's the law on the books, and it's Congresses job to fix it." Roberts (again!) decided to be pro-active here.