Criminal Justice

Supreme Court Will Decide Whether Police Can Get Cellphone Locations Without a Warrant

A Supreme Court case argued on Wednesday has wide-ranging ramifications for privacy rights and the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

In Carpenter v. United States, the suspect in question had records of several months of his cellphone location turned over to the police without a warrant. His attorneys, bolstered substantially by the American Civil Liberties Union, challenged this seizure as unconstitutional.

In a press release, ACLU attorney Nathan Freed said:

Because we always have our cellphones with us, their location history reveals a lot about our personal lives. This is exactly the kind of private information the Fourth Amendment was designed to protect. The government’s argument, based on rulings from the analog era, would free it to get comprehensive records of what websites we view, what Google searches we enter, and even our voice commands to smart devices — without constitutional limit. It’s 2017, not 1977, but people have the right to expect that their everyday movements and thoughts will not be freely available to the government without a warrant.

The government’s argument for warrantless cellphone data rests on shaky legal footing

The government is arguing under the premise of the “third-party doctrine,” established under Smith v. Maryland in 1979, which states that once an individual shares information with another person or entity, they lose their expectation of privacy in such information, and accordingly, the police do not need a warrant prior to a search.

The present case is only the most recent to address the conflict between historic legal precedent concerning searches and seizures in relation to modern technology. In 2014, the Supreme Court decided unanimously in Riley v. California that the warrantless search and seizure of digital contents of a cellphone during an arrest is unconstitutional.

Writing for the majority in that case, Chief Justice John Roberts stated:

Modern cellphones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans “the privacies of life”. The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought.

As cellphones and other technology become larger parts of Americans’ lives, and past legal precedent on searches and seizures become more arcane and less applicable, the Supreme Court has the power to decide in the Carpenter case whether the law moving forward will be concerned more with liberty or security.

(A woman checks her cellphone as she waits in line to enter the Supreme Court to view a hearing on November 29, 2017, in Washington. The Supreme Court heard Carpenter v. United States on whether prosecutors violated the Fourth Amendment by collecting a criminal suspect’s cellphone location and movement data without a warrant. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images.)


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