Washington, D.C., USA: The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday, in Carpenter v. United States, ruled 5-4 that police must generally obtain a warrant in order to obtain cell phone location data.
The court found first that accessing historical records that provide a user’s past movements constitutes a search under the Fourth Amendment. The court also found that the government must generally obtain a warrant supported by probable cause before acquiring those records.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority:
“We decline to grant the state unrestricted access to a wireless carrier’s database of physical location information. In light of the deeply revealing nature of [cell-site location information], its depth, breadth, and comprehensive reach, and the inescapable and automatic nature of its collection, the fact that such information is gathered by a third party does not make it any less deserving of Fourth Amendment protection. The Government’s acquisition of the cell-site records here was a search under that Amendment.”
Roberts emphasized that the decision in the case of Timothy Carpenter is narrow. It does not call into question conventional surveillance techniques and tools, such as security cameras; does not address other business records that might incidentally reveal location information; and does not consider other collection techniques involving foreign affairs or national security.
Roberts’ opinion was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan
Multiple dissents were filed in the case, including one by Justice Anthony Kennedy, which was joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, a separate one by Thomas, one by Alito, joined by Thomas, and one by Justice Neil Gorsuch.
In one dissent, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said the majority opinion represented a “stark departure from relevant Fourth Amendment precedents and principles.” The decision puts criminal investigations “at serious risk in serious cases” and places undue restrictions on law enforcement, he said.
“Cell-site records are uniquely suited to help the government develop probable cause to apprehend some of the nation’s most dangerous criminals: serial killers, r**ists, arsonists, robbers, and so forth,” Kennedy wrote. Kennedy’s dissent was joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr.
Thomas filed a separate dissent. Alito filed a separate dissent joined by Thomas. Justice Neil Gorsuch also dissented.
Gorsuch called for a re-evaluation of the way courts analyze Fourth Amendment claims. He said cellphone location data may be entitled to protection, but Carpenter had forfeited his most promising line of argument involving “positive law.”
The case arose from petitioner Timothy Carpenter’s conviction for armed robbery, for which he was sentenced to 116 days in prison. At trial, the prosecution offered evidence of Carpenter’s location during the 127 days surrounding the robberies through cell phone records, which law enforcement obtained without a warrant or consent. Carpenter appealed to the Sixth Circuit and then to the Supreme Court, arguing the officers violated his Fourth Amendment expectation of privacy.