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Published On: Sat, Jun 23rd, 2018

Supreme Court rules that police can keep using cell phone data to track criminals

The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday imposed limits on the ability of police to obtain cellphone data to use locate criminals in a narrow 5-4 vote. Privacy activists are touting the case of Carpenter v. United States as a major victory.

The location data in question was obtained under the Stored Communications Act (SCA), which did not require prosecutors to meet the “probable cause” standard of a warrant.

photo by Carrie Z. via pixabay

In an opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts, the court acknowledged that Fourth Amendment doctrines must evolve to account for “seismic shifts in digital technology.”

Accordingly, the court concluded that the voluntary conveyance assumption behind the Third-Party Doctrine just doesn’t hold up when it comes to cell phone location data, because “a cell phone logs a cell-site record by dint of its operation, without any affirmative act on the part of the user beyond powering up.”

More generally, the justices recognized that individuals “have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the whole of their physical movements. … Allowing government access to cell-site records contravenes that expectation. … When the Government tracks the location of a cell phone it achieves near perfect surveillance, as if it had attached an ankle monitor to the phone’s user.”

Roberts was joined by the court’s four liberal justices in the majority. The court’s other four conservatives dissented.

Timothy Carpenter was convicted in several armed robberies at Radio Shack and T-Mobile stores in Ohio and Michigan with the help of past cellphone location data that linked him to the crime scenes.

“Today’s decision rightly recognizes the need to protect the highly sensitive location data from our cellphones, but it also provides a path forward for safeguarding other sensitive digital information in future cases – from our emails, smart home appliances and technology that is yet to be invented,” said American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Nate Wessler, who represents Carpenter.

“We decline to grant the state unrestricted access to a wireless carrier’s database of physical location information,” Roberts said.

Roberts said the ruling still allows police to avoid obtaining warrants for other types of business records. Police could also avoid obtaining warrants in emergency situations, Roberts added.

The high court endorsed the arguments made by Carpenter’s lawyers, who said that police needed “probable cause,” and therefore a warrant, to avoid a Fourth Amendment violation.

 

About the Author

- Roxanne "Butter" Bracco began with the Dispatch as Pittsburgh Correspondent, but will be providing reports and insights from Washington DC, Maryland and the surrounding region. Contact Roxie aka "Butter" at [email protected] ATTN: Roxie or Butter Bracco

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