• Chad Dorsk

Carpenter v. U.S.: Obtaining Cell Phone-Site Information from Third-Party Service Providers = SEARCH

The Government's obtaining of cell phone-site information from third-party service provides is a “search” under the Fourth Amendment, and requires a warrant based on probable cause, the U.S. Supreme Court held June 22 in Carpenter v. U.S.. The Government's obtaining of cell phone-site information from third-party service provides is a “search” under the Fourth Amendment, and requires a warrant based on probable cause, the U.S. Supreme Court held June 22 in Carpenter v. U.S.. Facts Prosecutors suspected Timothy Carpenter of being involved in several robberies. The Government applied for and received court orders under the Stored Communications Act for his cell phone records.  The Stored Communications Act allows a judge to compel telecom providers to provide records when the Government “offers specific and articulable facts showing that there are reasonable grounds to believe” that the records sought will be “relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation.” The records were used to determine Carpenter's locations.  Carpenter moved to suppress the cell-site data on grounds that it was obtained without a warrant supported by probable cause.  The trial court denied the motion. At trial, an FBI agent testified that the cell-site data placed Carpenter “right where” the robberies were “at the exact time.” The Sixth Circuit affirmed the denial of the suppression motion on grounds that Carpenter lacked a reasonable expectation of privacy in cell-site data because he had shared it with the telecom service providers. Holding The Supreme Court reversed in a 5-4 opinion. “[A] central aim of the Framers was to place obstacles in the way of a too permeating police surveillance,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the Court.  “We have kept this attention to Founding-era understandings in mind when applying the Fourth Amendment to innovations in surveillance tools.”  The Court, for example, has required warrants for conducting thermo-imaging of people's houses and searching their cellphones.  And the Court has recognized “a person's expectation of privacy in his physical location and movements” by requiring a warrant for placing a GPS device on people's cars. The Court acknowledged that other decisions “draw a line between what person keeps to himself and what he shares with others,” but this third-party doctrine has been limited largely to relatively limited information such as bank records and pen registrars.  Cell-site records are “qualitatively different” than bank records or telephone numbers dialed, the Court said.  “Much like GPS tracking of a vehicle, cellphone location information is detailed, encyclopedic, and effortlessly compiled.” Prior to the technology age, society had an expectation that law enforcement agents would not – and, as a practical matter, could not – catalogue their every movement for an extended period of time.  But cell phone information changes that, and allows the Government to discover through a person's movements their familial, political, professional, religious and sexual associations. “These location records hold for many Americans the privacies of life,” the Court said. “Given the unique nature of cell phone location records, the fact that the information is held by a third party does not by itself overcome the user's claim to Fourth Amendment protection,” the Court said.  “[W]e hold that an individual maintains a legitimate expectation of privacy in the record of his physical movements as captured” through cell phone location data.  “[W]e also conclude that the Government must generally obtain a warrant supported by probable cause before acquiring such records.”

The decision in Carpenter overturned portions of 20th Century legislation and case law when nearly all US homes had landline phones in favor of constitutional rights stemming from technological advances of cellphones in the early 21st century with the birth of cell service. Dorsk Law Office understands the complexity of Modern legal dilemmas and is ready to help you with your case. 

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