Supreme Court Case
November 28, 2017
Carpenter v. United States is a case before the current term of the United States Supreme Court that is examining the issue of whether a warrantless search of cell phone records, including the location of and movement of the cell phone user, is a violation of a person’s Fourth Amendment right against an unreasonable search. Timothy Carpenter and Timothy Sanders were involved in a crime spree where they robbed numerous Radio Shack and T-Mobile stores in the Michigan and Ohio area. Law enforcement investigators wanted to place the men physically near the robberies. The investigators did not request a criminal search warrant but used a disclosure order that does not require the use of a warrant. They ended up acquiring acquired one hundred twenty – seven (127) days of cellphone tower information in order to place Mr. Carpenter within the vicinity of four robberies over a five-month period. This information was used to convict Mr. Carpenter who subsequently received a one hundred sixteen (116) year sentence. The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upheld the conviction and the case was appealed to the Supreme Court. LEARN MORE, LEARN MORE
This case is an important case because it is seen as a test on how far the government can intrude into the privacy of our digital devices in criminal cases. Cell phones are no longer only phones. A person’s physical location can be determined by tracking the signal of his or her cellphone through cell tower records. This is troublesome from a privacy viewpoint because the information, if retrieved without a warrant, has the ability to pinpoint a person’s location at all times. The idea that a person can always be tracked through their cell phone destroys any sense of privacy even when a person may not be engaging in criminal behavior on other days. Nathan Freed Wessler of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) argued before the court that “warrantless tracking should [have a time limit] of 24 hours” but that anything after that should require the cops to obtain a warrant to get cellphone location tracking information from wireless service providers. In a case from 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that law enforcement must get a warrant to use a GPS device on a suspect’s car to track his movements. And in 2014, the court ruled that a warrant was required to search the contents of a cellphone after the phone has been seized. Having a twenty – four (24) hour limitation as suggested by Mr. Wessler seems an appropriate limitation, as it is consistent with these recent Supreme Court cases on a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy which a person should also have with regard to their cell phone records and how it pinpoints their location. The suggestion made by the ACLU in this case is the best course of action in order to keep privacy rights up to date with evolving personal digital habits. LEARN MORE
- American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) – info page on Carpenter v. United States case.
- Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) – info page on “locational privacy” issues.
- Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) – info page on “cell tracking” issues.
This brief was compiled by Rod Maggay. If you have comments or want to add the name of your organization to this brief, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.