Supreme Court Nears Decision on Cell Phone Tracking Ruling


Each time a person uses a cell phone to make or receive calls or messages, the wireless carrier gathers details about the user’s location from the GPS coordinates of the towers used to transmit the call or message. A case being reviewed by the U.S. Supreme court may determine whether such details can continue to be released to police without a warrant, according to the ABA Journal.

At issue in Carpenter v. United States, is whether the Fourth Amendment conflicts in these scenarios with the “third-party doctrine,” which suggests that citizens have no privacy interest with respect to information shared with a third party, like a cell phone company or bank, because users of the service have no reasonable expectation that the information will be kept secret. In 2016, Verizon and AT&T received approximately 125,000 requests for this third-party data from law enforcement agencies, according to the ABA Journal.  

The FBI obtained Timothy Carpenter’s cell phone tower records without obtaining a warrant after Carpenter was suspected of committing several armed robberies. The records confirmed Carpenter’s location and movements over 127 days and were used to convict him of the robberies, which carried a sentence of 119 years in prison. According to the ABA Journal, one related court decision demonstrated, “[a] person who knows all of another’s travels can deduce whether he is a weekly churchgoer, a heavy drinker, a regular at the gym, an unfaithful husband, an outpatient receiving medical treatment, an associate of particular individuals or political groups—and not just one such fact about a person, but all such facts.”

The Supreme Court will have to determine whether revealing such records is in line with the frequently-applied third-party doctrine. In an opinion in United States v. Jones, Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted that the third-party doctrine “is ill suited to the digital age.”

March 12, 2018      

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