U.S. Supreme Court Decision Bolsters Mobile-Phone Privacy Rights (Carpenter v. United States)
Law enforcement officials need a warrant to get mobile-phone tower records that show someone’s location over an extended period, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a decision that bolsters digital privacy rights.
Voting 5-4, the court ruled in favor of Timothy Ivory Carpenter, who said prosecutors violated the Constitution when they obtained four months of phone data and used it at trial to show he was near the sites of a string of armed robberies.
The 5-to-4 decision has implications for all kinds of personal information held by third parties, including email and text messages, internet searches, and bank and credit card records. But Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing for the majority, said the decision was limited.
“We hold only that a warrant is required in the rare case where the suspect has a legitimate privacy interest in records held by a third party,” the chief justice wrote. The court’s four more liberal justices joined his opinion.
The question for the justices was whether prosecutors violated the Fourth Amendment, which bars unreasonable searches, by collecting vast amounts of data from cellphone companies showing Mr. Carpenter’s movements.
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“We decline to grant the state unrestricted access to a wireless carrier’s database of physical location information,” Roberts said. He added that the ruling still allows the police to avoid obtaining warrants for other types of business records
The high court endorsed the arguments made by Carpenter’s lawyers at the American Civil Liberties Union, who said that police needed “probable cause,” and therefore a warrant, to avoid a Fourth Amendment violation.
In the ruling, Roberts said the government’s argument “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.”
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Direct to Full Text of U.S. Supreme Court Decision
119 pages; PDF. June 22, 2018
Direct to All Documents Carpenter v. United States (via SCOTUS Blog)
Direct to Audio Recording of U.S. Supreme Court Oral Arguments (via CourtListener.org)
Recorded November 29, 2017
About Gary Price
Gary Price (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. He earned his MLIS degree from Wayne State University in Detroit. Price has won several awards including the SLA Innovations in Technology Award and Alumnus of the Year from the Wayne St. University Library and Information Science Program. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at Ask.com.