United States Supreme Court Rules Police Need Warrant to Track Cellphone Location

Today the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) ruled that in most instances the police will need a search warrant to acquire a person’s cellphone location information.  This important ruling protects the Fourth Amendment rights of all citizens of the United States from improper government surveillance.  Today’s decision also follows a trend of SCOTUS finding cell phones are protected by the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement.  Below are some initial thoughts about this particular decision:

  • In modern society people, without much thought, share very personal data with third parties.  In this case the Appellant, Carpenter, had his movements tracked over a multi month period from reconstructing cellphone location records.  Most of us never think that simply having a powered on cellphone with us allows for such easy tracking.  Most of us also have not thought much about the fact that our cellphone carriers are storing this data for a period of five years.
  • SCOTUS is serious about defining the limitations police have in conducting warrant less searches of newer technologies.  A newer technology is pretty much anything related to the internet/cell phones.  This decision follows SCOTUS’s 2014 decision in Riley v. California which held that a search of information on a person’s cellphone requires a warrant.  It is likely that in the near future more cases will be decided to more clearly define the limits of what digital information police will be required to get a warrant to acquire.
  • Both today’s decision, Carpenter v. United States, and Riley v. California had the majority opinion written by Chief Justice Roberts.  This could be a sign that he considers setting the boundries of Fourth Amendment law, as it applies to modern technology, an important issue for his Court.  That he has now written more than once ruled in favor of protecting the privacy rights of individuals could be a sign that digital records will receive Fourth Amendment protections like their old analog counterparts.
    • These likely will include include things like privately kept digital journals, emails, pictures, and more.
  • The decision was 5-4 in favor of Carpenter in this case.  If one of Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, Kagan, Roberts, and/or Sotomayor retire in the near future their replacement could swing this developing area of Fourth Amendment jurisprudence in the other direction.

As a criminal defense attorney I applaud decisions such as this one.  Requiring the State to get a search warrant is not an unnecessary burden.  Their is no adversary opposing their application.   Simply a Judge determining whether the minimum legal grounds exist.  In instances of search for digital records stored by third parties, as in this case, there is no risk of the record being destroyed by the target of a criminal investigation.  Modern technology allows for the storage of vast amounts of information for periods much longer than in the past.  Imagine the sheer volume of data that can be stored in a relatively small space.  As more and more records are stored for longer and longer periods there is a reasonable fear that if the Fourth Amendment is not used to protect individuals than the government will have the ability to reconstruct your entire life, or movements at almost GPS like precision, with no oversight.

A link to the full text of the decision and its dissents is here: Carpenter v. United States.