On June 22, 2018, The US Supreme Court ruled that the Fourth Amendment requires law enforcement to first obtain a search warrant before accessing cellphone records.

Carpenter v. United States

US SUPREME COURT RULES CELLPHONE RECORDS SEARCH REQUIRES WARRANT

Facts of the case

In April 2011, police arrested four men in connection with a series of armed robberies. One of the men confessed to the crimes and gave the FBI his cell phone number and the numbers of the other participants. The FBI used this information to apply for three orders from magistrate judges to obtain “transactional records” (cellphone records) for each of the phone numbers, which the judges granted under the Stored Communications Act, 18 U.S.C. 2703(d). That Act provides that the government may require the disclosure of certain telecommunications records when “specific and articulable facts show that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the contents of a wire or electronic communication, or the records or other information sought, are relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation.” The transactional records obtained by the government include the date and time of calls, and the approximate location where calls began and ended based on their connections to cell towers—”cell site” location information (CSLI).

Based on the cell-site evidence, the government charged Timothy Carpenter with, among other offenses, aiding and abetting robbery that affected interstate commerce, in violation of the Hobbs Act, 18 U.S.C. 1951. Carpenter moved to suppress the government’s cell-site evidence on Fourth Amendment grounds, arguing that the FBI needed a warrant based on probable cause to obtain the records. The district court denied the motion to suppress, and the Sixth Circuit affirmed.

Question

Does the warrantless search and seizure of cellphone records, which include the location and movements of cell phone users, violate the Fourth Amendment?

The government’s warrantless acquisition of Carpenter’s cell-site records violated his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures. Chief Justice John Roberts authored the opinion for the 5-4 majority.

The majority first acknowledged that the Fourth Amendment protects not only property interests, but also reasonable expectations of privacy. Expectations of privacy in this age of digital data do not fit neatly into existing precedents, but tracking person’s movements and location through extensive cell-site records is far more intrusive than the precedents might have anticipated. The Court declined to extend the “third-party doctrine”—a doctrine where information disclosed to a third party carries no reasonable expectation of privacy—to cell-site location information, which implicates even greater privacy concerns than GPS tracking does.

One consideration in the development of the third-party doctrine was the “nature of the particular documents sought,” and the level of intrusiveness of extensive cell-site data weighs against application of the doctrine to this type of information. Additionally, the third-party doctrine applies to voluntary exposure, and while a user might be abstractly aware that his cell phone provider keeps logs, it happens without any affirmative act on the user’s part. Thus, the Court held narrowly that the government generally will need a warrant to access cell-site location information.

Carpenter v. United States.” Oyez, 15 Jul. 2018, www.oyez.org/cases/2017/16-402.

The Criminal Defense Attorneys at Alavi, Bird & Pozzuto represent individuals charged with all types of felony and misdemeanor crimes.