Supreme Court to Determine If Warrant Necessary for Cell Phone Tracking

On Monday, June 5, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed that it will take up the issue of whether police need to obtain warrants in order to access prior cell phone tracking information from wireless service carriers or not. This is expected to be a major case related to individual privacy in the current digital age.

The Court is scheduled to take up this case in the fall, a case that involved Timothy Carpenter, a man who was charged with a number of robberies in both Michigan and Ohio that occurred in 2010 and 2011. Police obtained the tracking data from his cell phone use over a period of 127 days from his wireless carrier, and from that were able to show Carpenter had been at the scene of several unsolved robberies.

After an FBI agent testified that the tracking data placed Carpenter near the sites of four robberies, a jury convicted Carpenter of six robberies. When the conviction was appealed in a federal appeals court, the ruling upheld Carpenter’s convictions, saying that cell phone users have “no reasonable expectation of privacy” of their cell phone data.

The federal appeals court ruling is like that of many other lower courts who use a Supreme Court decision from nearly four decades ago that said no warrant was needed by authorities to obtain the phone numbers someone called because people don’t have an expectation that such information is private.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which is representing Carpenter, argues that 38-year-old decision of SCOTUS doesn’t apply in the digital age. When the previous ruling was made, people still had landline phones that were stationery and didn’t reveal the personal data such as a person’s daily movements that cell phones do. The ACLU reasons that access to such personal information, including a person’s daily whereabouts, should require probable cause, which is the standard for a warrant being issued.

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