Brief #46—Civil Rights
On June 22, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in the Carpenter v. U.S. case. The question before the Court was whether the warrantless search and seizure of cell phone records, including location and movements of the cell phone user, violates the Fourth Amendment. In order to physically place Timothy Carpenter and his accomplices near the location of a number of robberies in the Michigan and Ohio area, law enforcement personnel acquired his cell phone records from his cell phone provider company. His cell phone helped to determine his location and proximity to the robberies because his phone sent digital data to cell phone towers that were in the vicinity of the robberies. Law enforcement did not request or execute a search warrant but simply asked the cell phone provider company to hand over the info of Mr. Carpenter’s cell phone records. This information was critical in helping to convict him. The U.S. Court of Appeal for the Sixth Circuit ruled in favor of the government in Mr. Carpenter’s appeal of his conviction. He appealed to the Supreme Court and the Court, in a 5 – 4 decision, reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeals. LEARN MORE, LEARN MORE
The decision in the Carpenter case is a landmark decision for the future of digital and privacy rights in the United States. Chief Justice John Roberts’ opinion examined two distinct legal concepts and was able to resolve the potential conflict that did not automatically favor law enforcement interests over individual interests. Chief Justice Roberts went on to explain that traditionally a person moving about in public does not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in those movements and can be tracked and monitored by law enforcement without a warrant. But technology and cell phones has now enabled law enforcement to not merely monitor a person’s movements but to go back in time and collect a complete history of a person’s movements going back months and even years. If no warrant was required to acquire this digital information, then it seemed that law enforcement would rarely, if ever, ask for a search warrant because they could claim they are merely monitoring a person’s movements in public.
Chief Justice Roberts then analyzed the “third – party doctrine” a legal concept that states “a person has no expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily hands over to third parties.” A literal reading of this legal rule would appear to side with the government, as they would then be permitted to acquire a person’s cell phone records without the requirement of a warrant. Chief Justice Roberts reasoned that these two lines of legal jurisprudence did not apply to the cell phone records of this case because of the “unique nature” of cell phone records and the massive amounts of personal information people carry on their cell phones, which has become “indispensable to participation in modern society.” He reasoned that people would not expect law enforcement to have the ability to track their public movements over an extended period of time as the technology of cell phones permit. And, he reasoned that a person who carries a cell phone does not voluntarily hand over his cell phone data but shares the info “abstractly” and without an “affirmative act on his part.” This means that if law enforcement wants to acquire cell phone records in a criminal investigation it must comply with the probable cause and warrant requirements of searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment. Chief Justice Roberts summed it perfectly when he said the state does not have “unrestricted access to a wireless carrier’s database of physical location information.” LEARN MORE, LEARN MORE
- American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) – non-profit group blog post on the Carpenter decision.
- Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) – non-profit group release on Carpenter decision.
- Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) – non-profit group analysis of Carpenter decision.
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 Rod@USResistnews.org
Photo by: Anthony Garand