Police Need a Warrant for Cell Tower Location Data

Police cannot use cell tower data to track your location for days on end without getting a warrant, according to the US Supreme Court.

In Carpenter v. United States, a slim majority of the Court seems to recognize that decades-old precedents don’t adequately address privacy concerns raised by law enforcement’s use of new technologies.

Though narrow, the ruling is a huge victory for privacy rights at a time when police are turning to cutting-edge technologies to exponentially expand their ability to spy on all of us.

Private Companies Track Your Every Movement, Then Turn the Data Over to Police …

Police used cell tower data to track the movements of a suspect for 127 days. The data, which was obtained without a warrant, placed the suspect near the site of several Detroit-area robberies and played a crucial role in securing a conviction and a 116-year prison sentence.

However useful the information was, obtaining it without a warrant violated the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures, the court said.

Chief Justice John Roberts left open whether a more limited request for location data would require a warrant – considering that the majority of cell tower data that police get is limited to the date and time of a single murder, armed robbery, or other event, the Court’s decision in Carpenter doesn’t provide much real guidance and guarantees that the issue will be back in front of them at some point in the future…

What About the Third-Party Doctrine?

The ruling raises questions about the court’s third-party doctrine, which says that, when you voluntarily provide information to a third party, you lose your right to privacy in that information. For example, in:

  • United States v. Miller (1976): The court held that a defendant has no expectation of privacy when it comes to banking records, because the records belong to the bank; and in
  • Smith v. Maryland (1979): The court found that police do not need a warrant to use telephone company data to monitor an individual’s outgoing call data.

So, what’s different about Carpenter? Why wouldn’t the third-party doctrine give police the right to access cell tower location data without a warrant?

According to Roberts, what makes Carpenter different is the vast amount of personal information that cell location technology makes available.

“There is a world of difference between the limited types of personal information addressed in Smith and Miller and the exhaustive chronicle of location information casually collected by wireless carriers today,” Roberts wrote. “The Government thus is not asking for a straightforward application of the third-party doctrine, but instead a significant extension of it to a distinct category of information.”

New Technologies, New Rules

In the ruling, Roberts referred to two recent cases in which the court has placed limits on law enforcement’s ability to use new technologies to conduct searches:

  • United States v. Jones (2012): The court ruled that installing a GPS tracking device on a suspect’s vehicle constitutes a search and requires a warrant, and
  • Riley v. California (2014): The court unanimously found that police must get a warrant before searching the digital contents of a cell phone during an arrest.

Together with Jones and Riley, Carpenter establishes limits on how police can use new technologies to collect evidence against suspects – as well as spy on law-abiding citizens.

Myrtle Beach Criminal Defense Lawyer

Daniel A. Selwa is a criminal defense attorney in Myrtle Beach, SC. If you’ve been arrested in the Myrtle Beach, Conway, Horry County, or Georgetown area, call now at (843) 492-5449 or send us a message online to discuss your case.

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