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.

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Comments on “Supreme Court To Consider Fourth Amendment Implications Of Cell Site Location Info”

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26 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Is it worth someone advancing the argument that the third party doctrine should be asymmetric, in that if a third party volunteers gives evidence to the police it can be used in court, but that if the police want information as it is no longer a voluntary action by the third party? from a third party,, a warrant is required as it is no longer a voluntary action by the third party

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Sounds like a great way to blackmail someone. You still up for that?

There is a good reason privacy should exist and there is a reason we keep having to fight this battle. People want your private information for a reason because information is power.

How about I as a business report to the police that you passed by a school too many times for comfort today and had you hauled in for a little “questioning”? How about the police just show up at your place of business too?

People don’t care about innocence, more than enough will believe you are a pedo by accusation only.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

There is a massive amount of history, psychology, and economic forces at play.

History, when government has automatic power to compel businesses to give up data without warrant, think banks and the “Suspicious Activity Report” that has repeatedly robbed innocent people of extreme amounts of cash. The more we allow businesses to “volunteer” information the more we destroy the 4h.

Psychology, humans that are used to being spied on or believe they are, develop cognitive disorders and children may have stunted emotional growth. This creates huge divisions in humanity and drives everyone apart from each other through distrust. This tends to CREATE war and crime not prevent it.

Economy, people will avoid any form of “unapproved” economic activity out of fear of being discovered. Hello Mrs. Barbara Bush! We have your dildo on order… of course we notified the police, it is the LAW…

On that last part, of course it is not actually the law, but more than enough businesses will treat it like such to maintain a “good” relationship with the police. The police are not just certain to abuse this, they will go over the top to remind everyone just how they are their “friends” and that they should be cooperative, what do they have to hide? Should they call in the FBI to audit their business instead?

The government will use every advantage you give it, and TAKE MORE shortly after!

Anonymous Coward says:

Even if the SCOTUS rules that we have no privacy with cell site location, we’ll still have >95% of the country using cell phones and shrugging it off.

Not using a cellphone would eventually be seen as an indicator of having something to hide.

Humanity is walking down a truly dark path, and I keep holding out hope for some kind of legislative or judicial reforms to prevent the worst of it from happening. Time and time again I am disappointed by the government’s willingness to abuse newfound powers without considering the long term ramifications.

Vaultnode (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I’m not sure what you’re trying to express here other than generic cynicism.

Yes, people use cell phones because it’s a requirement to participate in much of modern society.

A change in the legal landscape is the most reliable way of protecting our right to be left alone. We can’t keep trying to develop technologies that our own governments keep fighting against as they’ll just take over the infrastructure. We need policy/legal changes to create lasting societal change.

As for your cynicism – I suggest a different outlook: Hope springs eternal.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: disappointed by government

” I’m not sure what you’re trying to express here…”

… he’s saying he doesn’t trust the government — and he is correct.

apparently you are unfamiliar with U.S./world history.
also, there is currently a substantial American political ideology with precisely that viewpoint

Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 disappointed by government

Nonsense.

A lot of folks here at TD simply don’t trust anarcho-capitalism any more than they trust government. They believe in checks and balances on capitalism to prevent monopolistic behavior, just like they believe in checks and balances on government to prevent dictatorial behavior.

Such offensively dishonest misrepresentations about other forum members are why you get flagged.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 It's not only monopolists you need to worry about (was disappointed by government)

Checks and balances on capitalism are needed to prevent not only monopolistic behavior (’tis why we have anti-trust), but bad actors using obscurity as their shadow as well. Think of a trucking company running their drivers into a ground to get stuff their faster, or some small manufacturing firm not bothering to dispose of waste properly because they want to undercut their competitor…

Anonymous Coward says:

As a side note...

“The case, Carpenter v. United States, centers on Timothy Carpenter, who was convicted of committing a string of armed robberies of Radio Shack …”

Armed robberies. Radio Shack. That would be like Lebron James slam-dunking over me, walking off the court, taking a shower, getting on a plane, going home to Cleveland, getting a good night’s sleep, waking up, having a nice breakfast, getting back on a plane, coming back to the arena, suiting up, and slam-dunking over me AGAIN.

Personanongrata says:

Kangaroo Courts and their Federal/State Court Jesters

Third party doctrine, qualified immunity doctrine and absolute immunity doctrine do not serve the interests of the citizens of the United States.

Rather the doctrines serve to both empower the state beyond the Constitution and shield the state from accountability.

These three doctrine are only a US legal theory that have been foisted into place by judges. They are not a bill that has been passed by congress and signed into law by the executive.

All three doctrine serve to obviate the need for judges to think by allowing them to hide clearly unconstitutional and criminal behavior on part of agents of the state behind specious sounding doctrine that is not US law.

How expedient.

Thad (user link) says:

Re: Kangaroo Courts and their Federal/State Court Jesters

These three doctrine are only a US legal theory that have been foisted into place by judges. They are not a bill that has been passed by congress and signed into law by the executive.

Yeah, but so was desegregation.

It’s true that courts make bad rulings and introduce bad legal theories. But you seem to be suggesting, not that third party doctrine is bad on its merits, but that courts shouldn’t be deciding how to interpret the Constitution. Which is kind of their job.

BT says:

It would seem the 4th is pretty clear.

It seems that if they wanted this information, they should get it through a warrant provided to a grand jury. If the suspect was caught with the goods, was caught near the site after it was robbed, or any probable cause, then search away, but simply looking at someones data because they can seems a touch draconian. Sure, it would make law enforcement job easier, but is American freedom about making governments job easier, or making government actually work to achieve a goal?
The recent precedents made appear err on the side of less rights in favor of government convenience, and to me that is not American at all.

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