High Court Limits Law Enforcement Use of Cellphone Location Data

In a June 2019 decision that profoundly affects Raleigh criminal defense lawyers, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that police officers cannot use cell phone locators to track suspects without first obtaining search warrants.

In Carpenter v. United States, a sharply divided Court ruled in favor of Michigan resident Timothy Carpenter. To link Carpenter to a string of Radio Shack and T-Mobile robberies in Ohio and Michigan, law enforcement officers looked at 127 days of cell phone tracking data which pinpointed Carpenter’s location at almost 13,000 points. Officers did not have probable cause or a warrant.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts concluded that officers must have probable cause, which is strong evidence of a crime, according to the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment.

The government tried to use the “third party” loophole, which states that private companies are not under the same restrictions as the government, to justify the warrantless search. But the majority rejected that argument. The Court’s liberal Justices joined Robert’s majority opinion.

The opinion clearly states that it is limited to cell phone location data and it does not apply to bank records and other business records. Furthermore, in emergencies, police officers do not need warrants to obtain location data, he added.

This opinion is the latest in a string of decisions which championed individual privacy rights over law enforcement investigations. In 2012, the Justices sharply limited the use of GPS tracking devices. Then, in 2014, the Supreme Court ruled that officers typically needed search warrants to search a person’s smartphone.

 For more information about the Fourth Amendment and other important Constitutional rights, reach out to the Raleigh criminal defense lawyers at Sandman, Finn & Fitzhugh, Attorneys at Law, today. Go online or call us at (919) 887-8040.