A Supreme Court Issue: Access to Cell Phone Record Access

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The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) has agreed to review the case of Carpenter v. United States on whether police need warrants to access cell phone location records. In this case, the U.S. government sought and obtained the historical cell phone location data of a private person under the Stored Communications Act instead of securing a warrant.

The Stored Communications Act permits the disclosure of personal information without needing to show probable cause. Explore how the decision resulting from the case of Carpenter v. United States could potentially change the way law enforcement handles personal information from technology in the future, and why cases like these present interesting real-life learning opportunities for online LL.M. degree students:

What is at Issue in Carpenter v. United States?

An image of the Supreme Court building.

The Supreme Court will consider whether the search and seizure of historical cell phone records, which reveal the location and movements of private citizens, are permitted without first acquiring a warrant. The Supreme Court will mainly have to address whether the Fourth Amendment permits this act, a decision which will likely impact citizens, law enforcement, legal professionals and more.

Case Background Information in Carpenter v. United States

According to the Petition for a Writ of Certiorari presented to the Supreme Court, the case of Carpenter v. United States involves Timothy Carpenter. Carpenter was found guilty of robberies he committed partly due to the months of cell phone records police officials obtained through the Stored Communications Act. These records showed his location during times when certain armed robberies had taken place. Police officials acquired these cell phone records without obtaining a warrant for them.

The attorney representing Carpenter argued that cell phone location records show private details of people’s daily lives and should not be allowed to be accessed by police officials without probable cause being shown. Carpenter’s attorney argued that the Fourth Amendment should protect American citizens from having private and sensitive digital records being handled improperly or without probable cause. In other words, this case will address an important issue on whether accessing private digital records qualifies a “search” under the Fourth Amendment, and more specifically, whether one has a reasonable expectation of privacy to their digital data.

A SCOTUS source notes that in April 2011, police in Detroit arrested four people suspected of taking part in a string of armed robberies at Radio Shack and T-Mobile stores in the Detroit area. One of those four individuals confessed that he had committed the crimes along with the help of 15 other men. The informant gave the police his personal cell phone number as well as the numbers of the 15 other men he claimed were involved in the robberies.

According to the information given in the Petition for a Writ of Certiorari, the FBI used this information to apply for orders to produce the records of those 16 individuals’ phone numbers under the Stored Communications Act.

Law enforcement officials who sought access to these phone records did not seek warrants based on probable cause because the Stored Communications Act did not require probable cause to be shown.

Carpenter received a conviction for six robberies after the cell phone data revealed that he was in the area where the crimes occurred at the times that they took place. None of the information revealed the content of his phone conversations or any other private details other than the location of the phone call, the number dialed, and the duration of the phone call.

Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals Decision in Carpenter v. United States

Carpenter and his legal team appealed the initial decision. The case proceeded to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals where the decision remained among a divided three-judge panel. The judges argued that law enforcement officials did not need warrants to access the phone records because Carpenter did not have a reasonable expectation that his cell phone service provider would maintain that privacy for any reason.

U.S. Supreme Court to Review Carpenter v. United States

The American Civil Liberties Union asked the Supreme Court to review the case. According to Jordan Brunner and Emma Kohse of Lawfare, on June 5, 2017, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in the Carpenter v. United States case. The Supreme Court will review the case during the third term in October 2017.

Brunner and Kohse further note that the outcome of this case will have implications regarding the Fourth Amendment, specifically, rights under the third-party doctrine. The third-party doctrine covers situations where information is voluntarily given to third parties. These third parties include cell phone companies or internet service providers. The information that is given to them, such as cell phone numbers, location data, and call times, have never been protected by the Fourth Amendment.

In the 1970s, the Supreme Court in Smith v. Maryland ruled that a robbery suspect could not shield the numbers dialed on a phone because that information is not private. That information is provided to a telephone carrier once an individual dials a phone number.

Since the 1970s, however, the Supreme Court has begun to express more concern about how technology affects the privacy of the American public. More recently, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a convicted drug dealer where GPS technology tracked the individual. The Supreme Court stated that in a separate case, police need to acquire a warrant to search the cell phone of a person who has been placed under arrest.

Relevant Constitutional and Statutory Provisions

The two constitutional and statutory provisions that the Supreme Court will review surrounding this case are the Fourth Amendment and the Stored Communications Act.

According to the U.S. Constitution, the Fourth Amendment gives U.S. citizens the right to be secure in their persons, papers, houses, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures. This amendment protects against these types of violations such that no warrants should be issued except with probable cause supported by oath.

The Stored Communications Act states, in parts that pertain to this case, that a government entity can require that a provider of electronic communication, such as a phone service provider, to disclose a record or other information about one of its subscribers or customers. The act states that government officials can obtain this information either with a warrant or through a court of competent jurisdiction.

Educational Implications of Carpenter v. United States

Legal professionals who wish to study case law and the rights of citizens against improper searches and seizures will likely follow the proceedings of this case closely.
If you are interested in cases like this one and want to pursue an advanced career in law, consider the University of Southern California Online Master of Laws (LL.M.) program at the Gould School of Law. USC is the first law school to offer an online Master of Laws (LL.M.) degree with the option of earning a Business Law Certificate. Discover how USC offers legal professionals and law graduates a USC law degree that can serve as a powerful credential for career development in law.

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