Supreme Court Says Warrants Are Needed For Cell Site Location Info

from the 4th-Amendment-Bonus-Content! dept

The Supreme Court -- in a narrow decision (both in scope and votes) -- has restored a little more of the Fourth Amendment. The long-awaited decision [PDF] in the Carpenter case has been released and the Supreme Court finds, in a 5-4 decision, that cell site location info (CSLI) is technically a third-party record but worthy of the Fourth Amendment's protection.

The defendant challenged the government's warrantless acquisition of 127 days of CSLI, arguing that the constant location records generated (without proactive assistance from phone users) by cell providers raised enough of a privacy issue the Fourth Amendment was implicated. Somewhat surprisingly -- given the long history of expansive readings of the Third Party Doctrine -- the Supreme Court agrees.

[W]hile the third-party doctrine applies to telephone numbers and bank records, it is not clear whether its logic extends to the qualitatively different category of cell-site records. After all, when Smith was decided in 1979, few could have imagined a society in which a phone goes wherever its owner goes, conveying to the wireless carrier not just dialed digits, but a detailed and comprehensive record of the person’s movements.

We decline to extend Smith and Miller to cover these novel circumstances. 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. Whether the Government employs its own surveillance technology as in Jones or leverages the technology of a wireless carrier, we hold that an individual maintains a legitimate expectation of privacy in the record of his physical movements as captured through CSLI. The location information obtained from Carpenter’s wireless carriers was the product of a search.

The court notes simply venturing out into the public does not erase all privacy expectations. The pervasive tracking engaged in by phone companies for business reasons should not undo a person's reasonable expectation of privacy. While the government tried to compare it to tracking vehicles with GPS devices, the court notes that cars cannot go everywhere people go. Long-term tracking -- made possible by provider recordkeeping -- provides the government with detailed depictions of cellphone users' lives. And all of this was -- up until this decision -- only a subpoena away.

[H]istorical cell-site records present even greater privacy concerns than the GPS monitoring of a vehicle we considered in Jones. Unlike the bugged container in Knotts or the car in Jones, a cell phone—almost a “feature of human anatomy,” Riley, 573 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 9)—tracks nearly exactly the movements of its owner. While individuals regularly leave their vehicles, they compulsively carry cell phones with them all the time. A cell phone faithfully follows its owner beyond public thoroughfares and into private residences, doctor’s offices, political headquarters, and other potentially revealing locales.

[...]

Accordingly, when the Government tracks the location of a cell phone it achieves near perfect surveillance, as if it had attached an ankle monitor to the phone’s user.

The ubiquity of cellphones has changed the Third Party Doctrine dynamic. The court isn't willing to give the government warrant-free access to the personal lives of millions of Americans.

Critically, because location information is continually logged for all of the 400 million devices in the United States—not just those belonging to persons who might happen to come under investigation— this newfound tracking capacity runs against everyone. Unlike with the GPS device in Jones, police need not even know in advance whether they want to follow a particular individual, or when.

That's the substance of the decision, but the whole thing is worth reading in full. Even the dissents are worth a read, if only to see how many justices would prefer the government treat long-term tracking as no different than bank records people voluntarily create with every transaction. The court will extend the Third Party Doctrine to cover historical CSLI. However, it does not extend that coverage to cover tower dumps, real-time CSLI (ping orders/Stingray use) or any other records otherwise covered by the Third Party doctrine. But this is still a significant Fourth Amendment win -- and law enforcement agencies using CSLI subpoenas to cover Stingray use will now need to craft warrant requests specifying what they're doing, which will make just a little bit tougher to engage in parallel construction.

More than half the page total is given over to the dissent. Justices Kennedy and Alito have written separate dissents that say pretty much the same thing:

1. The records were obtained from a third party so no warrant should ever be needed.

2. This will law enforcement's work more difficult.

Even if the latter is true, Constitutional protections protect the citizens from their government. If they're an obstacle, they're meant to be. The court isn't there to ensure easy government access. It's there to act as a check against any government overreach it observes.

Justice Thomas' dissent is perhaps the most infuriating read. Much like his dissent in other law enforcement-related cases, Thomas sides with the government while claiming he's siding with the Constitution. His main argument here is that the Fourth Amendment says nothing about privacy or reasonable expectations, therefore the court's decision is wrong. It guards people and papers, not stuff obtained from third parties, no matter how invasive these records can potentially be.

Justice Gorsuch's dissent, however, is an entertaining read. It's really not even a dissent. He agrees with the majority's decision but doesn't think it goes far enough. If Gorsuch had his way, he would also return to a more originalist view of the Fourth Amendment -- the property rights theory he pitched during oral arguments. But unlike Thomas, his would eliminate the court-erected Third Party Doctrine and grant privacy to records created by customers/users and held by third parties. These decisions (Smith, Miller, Katz) would instead be replaced with a property-based treatment of records, giving customers/users more ownership rights to third-party records they create, making them part of the "houses and papers" Fourth Amendment interpretation even if the the "papers" are held by others.

I cannot fault the Sixth Circuit for holding that Smith and Miller extinguish any Katz-based Fourth Amendment interest in third party cell-site data. That is the plain effect of their categorical holdings. Nor can I fault the Court today for its implicit but unmistakable conclusion that the rationale of Smith and Miller is wrong; indeed, I agree with that. The Sixth Circuit was powerless to say so, but this Court can and should. At the same time, I do not agree with the Court’s decision today to keep Smith and Miller on life support and supplement them with a new and multilayered inquiry that seems to be only Katz-squared. Returning there, I worry, promises more trouble than help. Instead, I would look to a more traditional Fourth Amendment approach. Even if Katz may still supply one way to prove a Fourth Amendment interest, it has never been the only way. Neglecting more traditional approaches may mean failing to vindicate the full protections of the Fourth Amendment.

This is a big ruling and it will definitely affect how law enforcement approaches investigations. It will not be well-received by those used to tracking people via subpoena (rather than tail cars and surveillance teams). But it likely won't do much for Carpenter, who will almost certainly find good faith awarded to law enforcement's acquisition of his CSLI records. It will help going forward, but Carpenter will not be a beneficiary.

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Filed Under: 3rd party doctrine, 4th amendment, carpenter, csli, location info, privacy, scotus, supreme court


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Jun 2018 @ 8:50am

    out_of_the_blue is not going to like this much, is he? Due process and all...

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