On June 22, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that police require a search
warrant to perform cellphone tower searches. In other words, in order
for law enforcement to track your past whereabouts—through historical
cellphone location—will need a judge’s approval.
The 5-4 ruling was written by conservative Chief Justice John Roberts siding
with the four most liberal justices. That reversed and remanded a Sixth
Circuit Court of Appeals decision.
Carpenter v. United States is the first case regarding phone location data that the Supreme Court
has ruled on. This case initially came to light back in 2014 when Carpenter
was convicted of multiple armed robberies in 2010 and 201, resulting in
a 116-year prison sentence.
The verdict was made after the prosecution gained access to Carpenter’s
cell-location data based on the Stored Communications Act of 1986, not
a search warrant. The act allows phone companies to turn over records
if the government has reasonable grounds to believe they will aid a criminal
Lower courts upheld the search of cell tower records according to the “third
party doctrine,” which was used in earlier Supreme Court cases to
uphold government access to suspects’ bank records and landline
phone numbers. The theory goes that consumers should know that wireless
carriers can keep track of them, so their locations are not considered private.
However, Chief Justice Roberts wrote the government’s searches of
Carpenter’s phone records were deemed a Fourth Amendment search.
He said allowing government access to historical GPS data infringes on
Carpenter’s Fourth Amendment protections and expectation of privacy,
by providing police officers with an “all-encompassing record”
of his whereabouts.
"While the third-party doctrine applies to landline telephone numbers
and bank records, it is not clear whether its logic extends to the qualitatively
different category of cell-site records. 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 location information obtained from Carpenter's wireless
carriers was the product of a search."
Keep in mind, the ruling does not affect law enforcement’s ability
to track someone in real time using cell data, specifically referring
to fleeing suspects.
The ruling is a significant victory for advocates of increased privacy
rights who argued further protections were necessary with regard to the
government obtaining information from a third party, such as a cellphone company.
For more information,
College Station criminal defense attorney at
The Law Office of Shane Phelps P.C. today.