In 2011, the FBI and local police were investigating a string of armed robberies of Radio Shack and T-Mobile stores in the Detroit area. In order to place the suspect at the scene of the crimes, law enforcement collected more than 120 days’ worth of cell phone data records.
In order to obtain the cell-site records, law enforcement obtained a broad court order under the Stored Communications Act, a federal law from 1986, rather than securing a warrant based on probable cause. The Stored Communications Act authorizes the release of records when there are “specific and articulable facts showing that there are reasonable grounds to believe” the records are “are relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation.”
This warrantless collection of cell-cite data was challenged as an unconstitutional search under the Fourth Amendment. On appeal, the Sixth Circuit upheld the warrantless search, finding the challenger lacked any property interest or reasonable expectation of privacy in the cell-tower records acquired by the government.
The Supreme Court overturned this decision, deciding in a 5-4 opinion that law enforcement generally need to obtain a warrant supported by probable cause before they can access cellphone location data. The Court reasoned that there was a reasonable expectation of privacy because these cell-site records document the phone user’s physical movements, and therefore a warrant is generally required for law enforcement to conduct the search
The Court decided that the third-party doctrine is not applicable as a warrant exception in this particular case because the location identifying information is not voluntarily shared. The Court reasoned that cell phones are an integral part of modern society, and the cell phone records are taken without any affirmative action by the user. The Court’s decision as it pertains to the third-party doctrine should be viewed as a narrow one, as they made it clear that they were only deciding the issues currently before the court. The Court did not overrule the exception, but rather declined to extend it any further.
The Court found that the Stored Communications Act was an insufficient mechanism for accessing historical cell site records means law enforcement will now be required to obtain a warrant to access cell-cite records. However, the Court makes it clear that case-specific exceptions will still apply, such as exigent circumstances.
We will continue to track the progression of this issue and update you accordingly.
Carpenter v. United States, 484 US 19 (2018).
Mark Walsh, ABA Journal, “SCOTUS Considers Limits to the Government's Surveillance Powers Over Personal Technology,” Dec. 2017.