Supreme Court Rules Police Can’t Track Americans’ Cellphone Location Data Without Warrant

The federal government is required to obtain a warrant in order to acquire an individual’s location using cellphone site tower records, the Supreme Court ruled Friday morning in a narrow decision that offered a victory to privacy advocates under the Fourth Amendment.

The 5-4 decision in Carpenter v. United States was narrow in both vote and scope as the court did “not consider other collection techniques involving foreign affairs or national security."

But the decision further bolstered a citizen’s Fourth Amendment rights by updating them to today’s digital age, when cellphones, laptops and social media, and the data technology companies gather, are a staple of life.

“The Fourth Amendment protects not only property interests but certain expectations of privacy as well,” the decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts explained, citing Katz v. United States. “Thus, when an individual ‘seeks to preserve something as private,’ and his expectation of privacy is ‘one that society is prepared to recognize as reasonable,’ official intrusion into that sphere generally qualifies as a search and requires a warrant supported by probable cause.”

Much of the government’s case rested on Smith v. Maryland and United States v. Miller from the 1970s, which each said a right to privacy that is normally assured under the Fourth Amendment did not extend to “third-parties” like cell phone companies.

In a rare occurrence, four justices filed dissenting opinions in the case, including the newest, Justice Neil Gorsuch, who challenged the “third-party” doctrine and the Smith and Miller cases being applied.

“I confess I still don’t see it,” Gorsuch wrote. “Consenting to give a third-party access to private papers that remain my property is not the same thing as consenting to a search of those papers by the government.”

GettyImages-980494100 The U.S. Supreme Court is seen behind trees after it ruled that states may collect sales tax from retailers that do not have a physical presence, on June 21 in Washington, D.C. Getty Images/Toya Sarno Jordan

In 2014, Timothy Carpenter was originally convicted and sentenced to more than 116 years in federal prison for a number of armed robberies at cell phone stores in Michigan and Ohio over the course of two years.

Carpenter’s lawyer, Nathan Wessler of the American Civil Liberties Union, told Newsweek in an interview last week that his client’s fate in terms of prison time will now go back to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals that originally shot down his claims of an illegal search.

The ACLU said Friday that the court's decision will create a "ripple effect for privacy."

"Today's historic Supreme Court cellphone tracking win will have a ripple effect for privacy. It will help protect all sorts of digital information stored online, from emails to data from smart home appliances," the organization tweeted.

The government’s case relied on older cases stemming from the 1970s when technology was inferior to today’s wireless and heavily interconnected world, according to University of Southern California law professor Orrin Kerr during an interview last week.

Kerr, who also wrote an amicus brief for the Carpenter case, said the case hinged on whether the court found a citizen’s cellphone records belonged to them or to their cellular provider. Providers can track a user’s whereabouts anytime the phone is on and then provide that information to federal investigators without a warrant.

Update: This story has been updated to include a statement from the ACLU.

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