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Does Obtaining Cell-Site Location Information Require a Warrant?


Carpenter v. United States

On June 5, 2017, the United States Supreme Court granted a petition to hear a major Fourth Amendment case decided by the Sixth Circuit, Carpenter v. United States. This case will decide whether it is constitutional for the government to collect cell-site location information without first obtaining a warrant. Using cell-site location information, police can place suspects at specific crime scenes, as well as track anyone’s general movements for months at a time.

Carpenter arose after police obtained cell-site location information from the phone of Timothy Carpenter, and prosecutors used that information to prove that Carpenter was at certain robbery crime scenes. Carpenter has argued that police should have obtained a warrant before gathering this evidence. Now, he will have a chance to make that argument to the United States Supreme Court.

Fourth Amendment Protections

The Fourth Amendment protects all Americans against “unreasonable searches” and that “no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause.” With few exceptions, whenever an individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy, a warrant is required for government search or seizure.

Cell-Site Location Information

There are two significant legal issues the court will set out to determine in this case:

  1. Does gathering cell-site data constitute a “search” under the Fourth Amendment?; and if so,
  2. Does an individual have a reasonable expectation of privacy when it comes to cellular data, thus requiring the government to obtain a warrant before obtaining it?

The Arguments of the Parties and Applicable Legal Precedent

The Government argues that this type of warrantless government surveillance does not violate the Fourth Amendment because it falls under the well-established “third-party doctrine.” Under this doctrine, when a person voluntarily reveals information to a third party, that information is no longer protected. According to the Supreme Court in Smith v. Maryland, “a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties.”

Meanwhile, Carpenter and privacy advocates argue that the third-party doctrine is outdated and should not apply to cell-site location information. Specifically, they argue that people are not voluntarily revealing their location information to cell phone companies. Rather, that information is transmitted automatically, and many people may not even be aware that this information is being tracked and stored at all.

Carpenter Could Have a Major Impact

Although this case only deals with whether the government can access cell-site location information, the rules of law that the Court is likely to establish will apply to almost all types of surveillance. As law professor Orin Kerr wrote in the Washington Post, “It’s not an exaggeration to say that the future of surveillance law hinges on how the Supreme Court rules in the case.”

The Court will be tasked with modernizing Fourth Amendment jurisprudence by establishing a new framework for when and how the government can collect personal data from third parties. If the Court sides with the government, it will secure the government’s right to collect information about people from banks, internet service providers, phone companies, and any other company to which a person voluntarily gives personal information. On the other hand, a ruling in favor of Carpenter would curb surveillance and usher in a new era of strengthened Fourth Amendment protections. Whether the Court will protect privacy or side with the interests of law enforcement remains to be seen. Either way, this case will result in a landmark decision, and it is one that we will certainly be following.

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