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Your Cell Phone Location Data: A Reasonable Expectation of Privacy? The United States Supreme Court Weighs In

A few weeks ago, a divided United States Supreme Court in Carpenter v. United States, 2018 WL 3073916, *9 held Fourth Amendment protections extend to a cell phone user's cell tower location data held by the user's wireless company. Why? A cell phone user has a legitimate expectation of privacy concerning their physical movements according to the Court.

In Carpenter, the government obtained Timothy Carpenter's cell-site location information (CSLI) from his wireless carrier without a search warrant. Carpenter was convicted of multiple robberies based upon seven days of his CSLI obtained by prosecutors from Carpenter's wireless carrier. Carpenter appealed his convictions, arguing the government's warrantless collection of his CSLI was unconstitutional. The Court agreed, stating the collection was a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment and therefore, the government was required to obtain a warrant supported by probable cause. 

The Court explained:

The fundamental premise of the Fourth Amendment is that "people have the right to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." The Fourth Amendment protections have been extended over the years to include invasion of a person's body or property. The government cannot conduct a search of where that person has a "reasonable expectation of privacy" without first obtaining a warrant based upon probable cause that a crime has been or is imminent.

Of course, there are exceptions to this general rule. That is, even where a reasonable expectation of privacy exists, the government does not need a search warrant under all circumstances. For instance, these exceptions include, but are not limited to: certain emergency situations; where incriminating evidence is likely to be destroyed before a warrant can be obtained; where incriminating evidence is in plain view; or where information is voluntarily shared with third parties, known as the third-party exception.

The government argued the third-party exception applied in Carpenter because Carpenter essentially waived his expectation of privacy by voluntarily sharing information with his wireless carriers. The Court acknowledged while the third-party exception applies to telephone numbers and bank account records, it refused to apply this same logic to CSLI. The court stated:

When [the earlier cases] were decided in 1979, few could have imaged a society in which a phone goes wherever its owner goes, conveying to the wireless carrier not just dialed digits, but a detailed and comprehensive record of a person's movements....We decline to extend [earlier precedent] to cover these novel circumstances. 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. Whether the Government employs its own surveillance technology ... or leverages the technology of a wireless carrier, we hold that an individual maintains a legitimate expectation of privacy in the record of his physical movements as captured through CSLI. The location information obtained from Carpenter's wireless carriers was the product of a search.

This case reflects how mindful the High Court is of new technology and its profound impact on the Fourth Amendment. It clearly represents a win for our privacy rights.

If you or someone you know believe you have been subject to a warrantless search or seizure, or your privacy rights have been intruded on by the police, feel free to contact the experienced criminal defense team at Rittgers & Rittgers at (513) 932-2115 for a free consultation. 

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