The Case of the Cell Phone Towers, the Fourth Amendment, and Your Right to Digital Privacy
What’s this about?–Cops tracking your cell phone records without warrants
The final ruling in Carpenter v. the United States is a major win for the people and their right to invoke the Fourth Amendment.
In 2011, Timothy Carpenter was charged and convicted of armed robbery of Radio Shacks and other businesses in the Detroit area. His conviction came about as a result of the police’s use of the Stored Communications Act (SCA) to obtain data from cell phone companies linking his proximity to cell phone towers near the scene of each crime. Under the SCA, the police didn’t need a warrant.
The problem was, the records also showed every other location Carpenter traversed for a grand total of 12,898 data points. The cell phone towers created an effective surveillance system, and law enforcement had not been required to obtain a warrant to have, in their possession, an in-depth picture of Carpenter’s daily, weekly, and monthly whereabouts. His whole life was being tracked, and so is ours.
Law Enforcement vs. The People: Huge win for citizen cell phone location privacy rights
Until June 22nd, law enforcement could seamlessly petition cell phone companies for records going back up to five years. It’s important to understand that the tower data is registered whenever the phone is on. A person doesn’t have to be making or receiving a call. What results is a collection of highly specific data points charting a person’s entire life. As Chief Justice Roberts wrote in the majority opinion, “As with GPS information, the time-stamped 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.”
Carpenter’s win is huge win for all citizens who value their own privacy. While its immediate effects are limited to cell phone tower records, there are murmurs among privacy rights scholars that this could be the beginning of a crackdown on the rampant and reckless sharing of peoples’ information resulting from the digital age.
The effort to create a barrier between law enforcement and cell phone company data started when Carpenter appealed to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. A number of organizations, including the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the ACLU, banded together to file an amicus brief charging that the government had violated the Fourth Amendment, which clearly states that people have the right to be “secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.”
Your Rights and the Fourth Amendment: Can cops still get a hold of your phone records?
Going forward, individuals accused of crimes can invoke their Fourth Amendment rights in issues of technology and privacy. Of course, this particular ruling has strict parameters. It is entirely limited to past cell phone tower records. No warrant is required for up to seven days’ worth of data. Moreover, it is possible for the law to be superseded in dire circumstances including the pursuit of a suspect charged in the act of committing a violent crime.
Your Digital Privacy Rights Redefined
Carpenter vs. the United States is being viewed by privacy protections scholars as a potential turning point in what could grow to become a much greater series of laws protecting people from their own technology. The digital age has opened people up to countless vulnerabilities and the law has not only been slow to respond, it has taken advantage of people’s inability to keep their information secure.
The dissenting opinions sided with previous precedent supporting the now defective third-party doctrine that stated that if someone’s information is obtained by a third-party, such as a telecommunications company, then that information is not protected by the Fourth Amendment.
In the 5-4 decision, all the liberal justices voted in favor of Carpenter. John Roberts was the swing vote. According to The Hill, Neil Gorsuch dissented in part because Carpenter’s attorneys did not make a property interest claim to his own cell phone data. They suspect this avenue could be used going forward to appeal Gorsuch to vote in favor of privacy and the Fourth Amendment.
Overall, the Carpenter win is a win for citizens, for civil rights champions, and for defendants going up against law enforcement. It’s not a blanket victory. The law can still get a warrant and obtain your records. And, there are many ways people are sharing their information without knowing it, through the use of location-tracking apps and other digital devices that chart our every movement. What we can take away from the Carpenter case is that there may be a cultural shift finally beginning, and that your right to privacy may be a viable case to protect you from prosecution.
© Moaddel Law Firm, A.P.C. 2018
Baker, Ashley. “Gorsuch’s dissent in ‘carpenter’ case has implications for the future of privacy.” The Hill. June 26, 2018.
Foran, Clare and de Vogue, Ariane. “Supreme Court: Warrant generally needed to track cell phone location data.” CNN Politics. June 22, 2018. (https://www.cnn.com/2018/06/22/politics/supreme-court-ruling-cell-phone/index.html)
Ohm, Paul. “The Broad Reach of Carpenter v. the United States.” Just Security. June 27, 2018.
Serrato, Jeewon Kim, Rudawaski, Anna, and Wilpon, Alexis. “US Supreme Court expands digital privacy rights in Carpenter v. United States.” Data Protection Report. Norton Rose Fulbright: BN Blog Network. June 27, 2018.
“Carpenter v. United States.” ACLU. June 22, 2018.