Today the United States Supreme Court issued their ruling in the case of Carpenter v. United States. You will recall our previous blog article on this matter. In a victory for privacy advocates, the Court followed the recent trend of protecting privacy rights in cellphone usage. Previously, the Court had ruled that the data stored in a cellphone was constitutionally protected against unreasonable searches and seizures; today the Court ruled that data produced by the phone, even though held by third party carriers, is subject to that same protection.
Carpenter was convicted by a federal jury in a series of robberies based in part on records provided by his cellular carrier that showed his movements over several months. Cellphones perform their wide and growing variety of functions by continuously connecting to a set of radio antennas called “cell sites.” Each time a phone connects to a cell site, it generates a time-stamped record known as cell-site location information. The phone carrier then records and saves this information.
As in the case of Carpenter, these records have been obtained by law enforcement, often without a warrant, and used to prosecute individuals accused of a crime. In his appeal to the Supreme Court, Carpenter argued that this data is protected by the Fourth Amendment and cannot be seized without a warrant. The Court agreed.
In ruling that the Government’s acquisition of Carpenter’s cell-site records was a Fourth Amendment search, the Court stated that historical cell-site records present even greater privacy concerns than the GPS monitoring. “They give the Government near perfect surveillance and allow it to travel back in time to retrace a person’s whereabouts, subject only to the five-year retention policies of most wireless carriers.” Virtually any activity on the phone generates the data, including incoming calls, texts, or e-mails and countless other data connections that a phone automatically makes when checking for news, weather, or social media updates.
The Court drew a distinction between this type of data and other types of information held by third parties, such as bank or financial records. Finding that, unlike information that is freely shared with a third party, the data sent and received by a cellphone is not always voluntary given.
The Court also left open the possibility of warrantless searches if exigent circumstances supporting a warrantless search exist.
As always, should you find yourself in need of excellent criminal representation, you can Count on Mooney. Call today for a consultation at any one of our 16 Central Pennsylvania offices at 1-833-MOONEYLAW.