Supremes Say Police Need Warrant for Cell Phone Location Data

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UPDATE The Supreme Court ruled law enforcement needs a warrant to collect location data from cell phones. The 5-to-4 decision relates to towers, because wireless carriers compile location data from the GPS coordinates of the tower used when someone makes or receives a call or message. Friday’s decision reversed an earlier Appeals Court decision.

The case, Carpenter v. United States, No. 16-402, stemmed from armed robberies of Radio Shacks and other stores in the Detroit area starting in 2010, reported the New York Times. Witnesses said Timothy Carpenter planned the robberies, supplied guns and was a lookout.

Prosecutors used cell phone records obtained from wireless carriers to help prove their case. Carpenter was convicted and sentenced to 116 years in prison.

His attorneys said carriers turned over 127 days of records that placed his phone at 12,898 locations, based on tower information. The police gathered the data without a warrant, reported C-Net. The justices decided prosecutors violated the Fourth Amendment, which bans unreasonable searches, by collecting so much cell phone data, according to the Times

C-Net reported the case is the first one concerning cell phone location data the Supreme Court has ruled on, making it a landmark decision. An Appeals Court judge ruled earlier that cell phone data is not protected by the Fourth Amendment, and didn’t require a warrant.

In Friday’s Supreme Court ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that the government’s searches of Carpenter’s phone records were considered a Fourth Amendment search. “The Government’s position fails to contend with the seismic shifts in digital technology that made possible the tracking of not only Carpenter’s location but also everyone else’s, not for a short period but for years and years,” he wrote.

June 25, 2018                                        

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