June 22, 2018
Carpenter v. United States, No. 16-402
Decided June 22, 2018
The Supreme Court held 5-4 that law enforcement officials must generally obtain a warrant when seeking historical cell phone location records from a telecommunications provider.
Wireless carriers regularly collect and store information reflecting the location of cell phones when those phones connect to cell sites to transmit and receive information. Prosecutors collected a suspect’s cell-site location data from wireless carriers following the procedure in the Stored Communications Act, 18 U.S.C. §§ 2701-12, but without obtaining a warrant. The suspect argued that the Government’s acquisition of this data without a warrant was an unconstitutional search that violated the Fourth Amendment. This argument set up a conflict between two lines of Supreme Court precedent: the longstanding third-party doctrine, which holds that information a person voluntarily reveals to others is not protected by the Fourth Amendment; and several recent cases holding that cell phones implicate significant privacy concerns because so many people store large amounts of information on them.
Whether an individual has a protected privacy interest under the Fourth Amendment in historical cell phone location records.
Yes. The Fourth Amendment protects cell phone location records because of their comprehensive and private nature, even though they are collected and held by the phone company. The Government must ordinarily obtain a warrant before acquiring the records.
“In light of the deeply revealing nature of [cell site location data], its depth, breadth, and comprehensive reach, and the inescapable and automatic nature of its collection, the fact that such information is gathered by a third party does not make it any less deserving of Fourth Amendment protection.”
Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the 5-4 majority
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