Cellphone Location and the Fourth Amendment

Dallas, Texas – Peter Smythe © 2019

Dallas, Texas – Peter Smythe © 2019

The Supreme Court recently decided Carpenter v. United States, a case that involved the Government introducing cell-tower location information at trial to prove that a defendant was present at some bank robberies. The Court held that the records were inadmissible because the Government hadn’t sought a warrant for them.

The Government arrested four suspects in connection with the robbery of a T-Mobile and Sprint store. One of the suspects talked, and described how a larger group had robbed nine stores. Agents requested cell-tower records on Tim Carpenter for the four-month period that the robberies occurred. The Government received 12,898 location points on Carpenter, averaging 101 points per day.

Carpenter was later indicted on six counts of robbery and six counts of illegally carrying a firearm. He moved to suppress the cell-tower information, but his motion was denied. At trial, witnesses identified him as the leader of the group. The Government presented an FBI witness as an expert who testified about Carpenter’s movements based upon the cell-tower data it had obtained. The Government argued that the location information “clinched it,” and the jury convicted Carpenter of all counts save one.

The question before the Supreme Court was whether the government conducts a search under the Fourth Amendment when it accesses historical phone records that provide a comprehensive chronicle of a cellphone user’s past movements. The Court said it does and, in doing so, it is required to get a warrant for such information. The Court reasoned that property rights aren’t the sole measure of Fourth Amendment violations; the amendment protects privacy rights, too. The Court analyzed the privacy rights involved and concluded that “seismic shifts in digital technology” demanded a fresh look at Fourth-Amendment jurisprudence, including the infamous third-party doctrine.

Read the opinion here.