Supreme Court To Consider Fourth Amendment Implications Of Cell Site Location Info
from the finally...-but-will-it-be-a-decision-we-really-want? dept
We’ve been waiting a long time for the Supreme Court to tackle the Fourth Amendment implications of cell site location info. After putting it off for as long as possible (or so it seems…), the nation’s top court is finally ready to handle yesterday’s hotly-disputed tech/privacy issue.
The Supreme Court agreed Monday to hear a case next term challenging the use of cellphone records without a warrant.
The case, Carpenter v. United States, centers on Timothy Carpenter, who was convicted of committing a string of armed robberies of Radio Shack and T-Mobile stores in Michigan and Ohio between December 2010 and March 2011.
The government’s evidence at trial included business records from the defendants’ wireless carriers, showing his cellphone was used within a half-mile to two miles of several robberies during the times they occurred.
The nation’s top court seemed to have a pretty good handle on the issues raised by today’s smartphones in its Riley decision, so there’s some hope the Court will engage in a thorough examination of the Third Party Doctrine in light of today’s technological realities.
The Supreme Court turned down a chance to reconcile a circuit split back in 2015. Its decision to take it up now might make this a bit easier, seeing as that split no longer exists. The holdout — the Fourth Circuit Appeals Court — reversed its original finding to align it with the other circuits in stating there is no expectation of privacy in third party records.
The case the Supreme Court will examine comes from the Sixth Circuit Court and deals with historical cell site location records. Almost coincidentally, the Sixth Circuit Appeals Court released another cell site opinion the same day the Supreme Court announced its review, only this time dealing with real-time gathering of cellphone GPS data. In both cases, the Appeals Court found no Fourth Amendment implications, even though it had to push through its own contradictory assertions to arrive at this conclusion.
Unfortunately, a previous Supreme Court decision on GPS tracking further complicates the issue. The Court’s decision on this issue — which is very much related to warrantless access to cell site location info — was about three-quarters punt. It suggested long-term warrantless GPS tracking could violate the Fourth Amendment, but did not go so far as to institute a warrant requirement. It’s likely it could arrive at a similar non-decision here — one that would allow the continued exploitation of the Third Party Doctrine by law enforcement, even though the wealth of data handed over to third parties by today’s smartphones bears almost no resemblance to the dialing records discussed in 1979’s Smith v. Maryland.