Supreme Court restricts police on
cellphone location data
Send a link to a friend
[June 23, 2018]
By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme
Court on Friday imposed limits on the ability of police to obtain
cellphone data pinpointing the past location of criminal suspects in a
major victory for digital privacy advocates and a setback for law
In the 5-4 ruling, the court said police generally need a court-approved
warrant to get the data, setting a higher legal hurdle than previously
existed under federal law. The court said obtaining such data without a
warrant from wireless carriers, as police routinely do, amounted to an
unreasonable search and seizure under the U.S. Constitution's Fourth
In the ruling written by conservative Chief Justice John Roberts, the
court decided in favor of Timothy Carpenter, who was convicted in
several armed robberies at Radio Shack and T-Mobile stores in Ohio and
Michigan with the help of past cellphone location data that linked him
to the crime scenes.
Roberts stressed that the ruling did not resolve other hot-button
digital privacy fights, including whether police need warrants to access
real-time cellphone location information to track criminal suspects. The
ruling has no bearing on "traditional surveillance techniques" such as
security cameras or on data collection for national security purposes,
Roberts was joined by the court's four liberal justices in the majority.
The court's other four conservatives dissented.
Although the ruling explicitly concerned only historical cellphone data,
digital privacy advocates are hopeful it will set the tone for future
cases on other emerging legal issues prompted by new technology.
"Today's decision rightly recognizes the need to protect the highly
sensitive location data from our cellphones, but it also provides a path
forward for safeguarding other sensitive digital information in future
cases - from our emails, smart home appliances and technology that is
yet to be invented," said American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Nate
Wessler, who represents Carpenter.
"We decline to grant the state unrestricted access to a wireless
carrier's database of physical location information," Roberts said.
Roberts said the ruling still allows police to avoid obtaining warrants
for other types of business records. Police could also avoid obtaining
warrants in emergency situations, Roberts added.
The high court endorsed the arguments made by Carpenter's lawyers, who
said that police needed "probable cause," and therefore a warrant, to
avoid a Fourth Amendment violation.
Police helped establish that Carpenter was near the scene of the
robberies by securing from his cellphone carrier his past "cell site
location information" that tracks which cellphone towers relay calls.
His bid to suppress the evidence failed and he was convicted of six
The big four wireless carriers - Verizon Communications Inc, AT&T Inc,
T-Mobile US Inc and Sprint Corp - receive tens of thousands of such
requests annually from law enforcement.
Carpenter's case will now return to lower courts. His conviction may not
be overturned because other evidence also linked him to the crimes.
[to top of second column]
U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts participates in taking a new family
photo with his fellow justices at the Supreme Court building in
Washington, D.C., U.S., June 1, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File
The case underscored the rising concerns among privacy advocates
about the government's ability to obtain an ever-growing amount of
personal data. During arguments in the case in December, liberal
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who joined Roberts in the ruling, alluded
to fears of "Big Brother," the all-seeing leader in George Orwell's
dystopian novel "1984."
Conservative Justice Samuel Alito, a former prosecutor, said in a
dissenting opinion that the ruling could do "far more harm than
The decision "guarantees a blizzard of litigation while threatening
many legitimate and valuable investigative practices upon which law
enforcement has rightfully come to rely," Alito added. Alito also
said the ruling does not address "some of the greatest threats to
individual privacy" that may come from data collection by private
It was the third ruling in recent years in which the court has
resolved major cases on how criminal law applies to new technology,
each time ruling against law enforcement. In 2014, it required
police in most instances to obtain a warrant to search a cellphone's
contents when its user is arrested. In 2012, it decided a warrant is
needed to place a GPS tracking device on a vehicle.
The U.S. Justice Department argued that probable cause should not be
required to obtain customer records under a 1986 federal law.
Instead, it argued for a lower standard: that prosecutors show only
that "reasonable grounds" exist for the records and they are
"relevant and material" to an investigation.
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."
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment.
There has been rising concern over the surveillance practices of law
enforcement and intelligence agencies, and whether companies like
wireless carriers care about customer privacy rights.
Various tech firms, including Alphabet Inc's Google and Microsoft
Corp, joined a brief in the Carpenter case urging the court to adopt
strong privacy protections.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)
[© 2018 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2018 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
Thompson Reuters is solely responsible for this content.