The Supreme Court of the United States agreed to hear a case that considers whether the Fourth Amendment requires warrants for search and seizures of historical cellphone records that would reveal the location and movements of a user. The case, Carpenter v. US, affirmed by the Sixth Circuit in April 2016, found that a warrant was not required under the Fourth Amendment for cell phone location data because it did not reveal anything about the actual content of the communication. Therefore, the data was instead a routinely collected business record and there was no reasonable expectation of privacy.
In April 2011, using data obtained from various cell phone signal towers, police arrested Timothy Carpenter and Michael Sanders who were suspected of committing numerous armed robberies in the Detroit area. The FBI was able to create a map allegedly showing where Carpenter and Sanders had used their cell phones on the days of the robberies. The map showed the men within a half mile to a two-mile vicinity.
The government obtained the data pursuant to a court order issued under the Stored Communications Act (“SCA”). After hearing this data, as well as testimony from seven accomplices, a federal jury convicted both men in 2013. Carpenter received a 116-year prison sentence. Sanders received 14 years.
On appeal to the Sixth Circuit, the defendants in Carpenter argued that the Fourth Amendment required the government to meet the higher-standard of probable cause rather than the relevance and materiality required by the SCA. For over twenty years, the SCA has authorized investigators to obtain cell-site data on a showing of reasonableness. The defendants further argued that cell phone location data reveals private details of one’s life and is a new form of electronic surveillance. The Sixth Circuit disagreed.
In taking the case, the Supreme Court has the opportunity to set a standard for locational privacy that could have far-reaching effects in both law enforcement investigations and the online industry.