Carpenter vs. United States – Law Enforcement Must Obtain Warrant for Cell Phone Records Maintained by Service Provider

The United States Supreme Court decided Carpenter vs. United States on June 22, 2018.  This is a major Fourth Amendment decision which requires law enforcement to obtain a warrant to get cell phone service provider records that can show a user’s movements.

The broad facts of the case are not complicated.  The police arrested four men in connection with a series of armed robberies in April, 2011. One of the men confessed and gave his cell phone number and the numbers of the other actors to law enforcement. This information was used to apply for court orders to obtain “transactional records” for each phone number.  The applications were granted under the Stored Communications Act, which provides that the government may require the disclosure of certain telecommunications records when “specific and articulable facts show[] that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the contents of a wire or electronic communication, or the records or other information sought, are relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation.” The transactional records included the dates and times of calls, and the approximate location where calls were made based on the user’s relative location to cell towers.  Such material is referred to as “cell site location information” or  “CSLI”.

Based on the CSLI, the government charged Carpenter with, among other offenses, Hobbs Act robberies (e.g., robberies that affect interstate commerce).  Carpenter moved to suppress the CSLI evidence on Fourth Amendment grounds, asserting that a warrant was required to obtain the records.  The district court denied Carpenter’s motion, and the Sixth Circuit affirmed.

The question before the Supreme Court was whether the warrantless search and seizure of cell phone records, which records include the location and movements of cell phone users, violate the Fourth Amendment.

The Court held that the warrantless acquisition of the cell-site records violated the Fourth Amendment.  The majority began by recalling that the Fourth Amendment protects property interests as well as reasonable expectations of privacy. The expectations of privacy in digital data is a relatively novel concept that does not mesh precisely with existing case law, but tracking someone’s movements and location through cell-site records is considerably more intrusive than existing cases may have anticipated. The Court declined to extend the “third-party doctrine”—a doctrine where information disclosed to a third party does not carry any reasonable expectation of privacy—to CSLI, which raises even greater privacy concerns than GPS tracking. One consideration in the development of the third-party doctrine was the “nature of the particular documents sought,” and the level of intrusiveness of extensive cell-site data weighs against application of the doctrine to this type of information. Additionally, the third-party doctrine applies to voluntary exposure, and while a user might be aware in some very abstract way that his cell phone company maintains logs showing details of usage, that occurs without any affirmative act on the user’s part. Against this backdrop, the Court held that the government must get a warrant to obtain CSLI.

This decision was a 5-4 split, with Chief justice Roberts authoring the majority opinion.  Justices Kennedy, Thomas, Alito and Gorsuch all dissented.

Given the ongoing importance that cell phones play in people’s lives, coupled with the increasing sophistication of cell phone technology, this decision is a major win for privacy rights.

James S. Friedman, LLC, is a criminal defense law firm centrally located in New Brunswick, Middlesex County, New Jersey.  The firm represents defendants in all criminal cases in the New Jersey Superior Court, all New Jersey municipal courts, the New York State criminal courts located in Manhattan and Brooklyn, and all federal district courts in New Jersey and New York City.



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