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. The decision is considered a huge victory for privacy rights advocates and a setback for law enforcement authorities.
In the 5-4 ruling written by conservative Chief Justice John Roberts, the court decided in favor of Timothy Carpenter, who was convicted in several armed robberies at Radio Shack and T-Mobile 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 endorsed the arguments made by Carpenter’s legal team, who said that police need “probable cause,” and therefore 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. Roberts was joined by the court’s four liberal justices in the majority, while the court’s other four conservatives dissented.
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.