Supreme Court Restricts Law Enforcement on Cellphone Location Data

On June 22, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that police generally must obtain a search warrant in order to track a suspect’s movement through cellphone location records.

In the 5-4 decision, the court ruled in favor of Timothy Carpenter after being convicted of a string of armed robberies at T-Mobile and Radio Shack stores in Michigan and Ohio. In this case (Carpenter v. United States), law enforcement gained access to records from cell towers spanning 127 days without a search warrant, placing Carpenter near each of the robberies.

However, the Supreme Court sided with the legal of Carpenter,stating law enforcement required “probable cause,” along with a warrant, to avoid a violation of the Fourth Amendment. Probable cause requires strong evidence that an individual committed a crime.

The majority ruling held that the “third-party doctrine” does not apply to historical cellphone data and that probable cause will be needed to obtain a judge-approved warrant to track cell site location information. The ruling was written by Chief Justice John Roberts who was joined by the court’s liberal justices.

Roberts said the court’s decision is limited to cellphone tracking data and does not affect other business records, such as those held by banks. Additionally, he wrote that law enforcement can still respond to an emergency and obtain records without a warrant.

When it comes to modern technology, the high court has shown great interest in privacy rights. In 2012, they ruled that law enforcement cannot track suspects by putting a GPS tracking device on their vehicles. Two years later, the court ruled that police generally need a search warrant to search the contents of a person’s cellphone after the arrest.

For more information about the Fourth Amendment protection, contact our Raleigh criminal defense attorney at Sandman, Finn & Fitzhugh today.


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