Published: Sat, June 23, 2018
Electronics | By Shannon Stone

Supreme Court rules cops need a warrant to get phone location data

Supreme Court rules cops need a warrant to get phone location data

The Court did, however, state that it's important to continue protecting Fourth Amendment rights as technology moves forward, stating that "Here the progress of science has afforded law enforcement a powerful new tool to carry out its important responsibilities".

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and other media organizations also linked the Fourth Amendment to the First Amendment and freedom of the press in a separate court filing, explaining that warrantless searches of cell phone location data could result in the surveillance of journalists' activity and reveal their sources.

When you make calls and texts, your cell phone communicates with the nearest cellular tower. The justification, according to Roberts, was that data transmitted by phones doesn't apply to the third-party doctrine - a previous ruling where the US Supreme Court stated there is no reasonable expectation of privacy for information known to third parties, like location data transmitted to cell towers and telecom companies.

In the case at hand, United States v. Carpenter, the government was able to obtain around three months worth of phone tracking records (which basically just show the location of what towers a device is pinging to at any given time and date) on the defendants, who stood accused of robbery, and used this information in order to successfully convince the jury that they were present at key locations. "Probable cause" requires strong evidence that a person has committed a crime. The Trump administration said the lower court decisions should be upheld.

In a statement, the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented Carpenter, hailed the ruling as a "groundbreaking victory for Americans' privacy rights in the digital age". Law enforcement officials often force phone companies or individuals to unlock their phones for a search, and cell-site records can still be obtained by the feds with a properly procured warrant.

"There has been a seismic shift in technology and also in the implications for privacy since the 1970s when most of these cases were decided", Butler said.

In a similar case back in 2014, The Supreme Court ruled that police wanting to search the contents of a suspect's smartphone would also need a search warrant. On Friday, he returned to the metaphor to note that a phone "faithfully follows its owner beyond public thoroughfares and into private residences, doctor's offices, political headquarters, and other potentially revealing locales".

"When the government tracks the location of a cellphone it achieves near flawless surveillance", wrote Chief Justice John Roberts.

Even with the court's ruling in Carpenter's favour, it's too soon to know whether he will benefit from Friday's decision, said Harold Gurewitz, Carpenter's lawyer in Detroit. There also is other evidence implicating Carpenter that might be sufficient to sustain his conviction.

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