The U.S. Supreme Court handed down a landmark Fourth Amendment decision Friday, finding that law enforcement cannot procure cellphone location data without a warrant.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion, joined by the Court’s liberal bloc, in keeping with Court’s steady expansion of constitutional protections for digital information.
“The progress of science has afforded law enforcement a powerful new tool to carry out its important responsibilities,” he wrote. “At the same time, this tool risks government encroachment of the sort the Framers, ‘after consulting the lessons of history,’ drafted the Fourth Amendment to prevent.”
The decision was attended by a flurry of dissents from Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch, who each wrote separately to criticize the decision. Roberts’ opinion for the Court ran 23-pages, while the dissents cumulatively totaled over 90 pages.
The case was occasioned in 2011 when a Michigan man named Timothy Carpenter was convicted for a string of robberies in the Detroit area. Prosecutors used his cell site location information (CSLI) to compile a comprehensive 127 day log of his movements, showing he was in the vicinity of each crime as it occurred.
CSLI cannot be used for real-time tracking, nor does it produce granular location information, though precision is increasing. Major cell service providers say they receive tens of thousands of law enforcement requests for a user’s location information each year.
On appeal, Carpenter argued that his location data is protected by the Fourth Amendment and cannot be seized without a warrant.
A majority of the Court agreed, ruling that police must secure a warrant supported with probable cause before obtaining cellphone location data. Roberts explained that citizens have a privacy interest in their physical movements, which government cannot compromise without permission from a court. (RELATED: Supreme Court Clears Way For State Sales Tax On Internet Commerce)
The chief noted that Carpenter’s case closely resembled a 2012 decision called U.S. v. Jones, in which a unanimous Court ruled that the warrantless installation of a GPS tracking device on a car was unconstitutional. In both instances, he said, law enforcement is given unprecedented access to highly sensitive information.
“Such tracking partakes of many of the qualities of the GPS monitoring we considered in Jones,” he wrote. “Much like GPS tracking of a vehicle, cell phone location information is detailed, encyclopedic, and effortlessly compiled.”
“As with GPS information, the timestamped data provides an intimate window into a person’s life, revealing not only his particular movements, but through them his ‘familial, political, professional, religious, and sexual associations,'” he added, quoting Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s concurring opinion in Jones.
The government argued that location data is not protected by the Constitution because of a legal rule called the third party doctrine. The rule holds that a person has no privacy right in a record held by a third party, like a phone company or a bank. As such, these records may be obtained without a warrant.
Since cell phone providers generate location data in the ordinary course of business and maintain it for commercial or technological purposes, the government reasoned, then CSLI does not have Fourth Amendment protection.
But the Court disagreed, and declined to extend the rule to cellphones.
“The government’s position 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, not for a short period but for years and years,” Roberts wrote.
He went on to explain that the third-party doctrine covers information that is voluntarily disclosed for limited and specific purposes. Cellphone location data, on the other hand, betrays a vast swath of information, and is usually created without a user’s knowledge. CSLI is developed when cellphones search for signals from nearby towers, which happens dozens of times per day without the user’s consent.
In dissent, Alito said the decision “guarantees a blizzard of litigation while threatening many legitimate and valuable investigative practices upon which law enforcement has rightfully come to rely.”
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