Carpenter v. United States

The United States Supreme Court has accepted a new case that implicates cell-phone location privacy. The case of Carpenter v. United States was decided by the Sixth Circuit and now the Supreme Court will issue a decision in the future as to whether the lower court’s decision was correct. The main issue in this case is that the court will be deciding whether or not the warrantless search and seizure of historical cell phone records revealing the location and movements of a cell phone user over the course of a 127-day period is permitted by the Fourth Amendment.  In general, the Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures. It also implicates the laws regarding search warrants, wiretaps, other forms of surveillance and is central to privacy laws.

What are the case facts?

In 2011, four men were arrested because they were suspected of committing a string of armed robberies at T-Mobile and Radio Shack in the Detroit area. One of the four men confessed to the crimes and told the police that a shifting group of 15 other men served as getaway drivers and lookouts. The one man who confessed gave his phone number along with the phone numbers of some of the other participants to the FBI. The FBI then reviewed the call records of the man who confessed and were able to identify the phone numbers of others that he had called around the time of the robberies.

The FBI then applied for three orders from judges to obtain “transactional records” from various wireless carriers for 16 different phone numbers. The agency requested all subscriber information, toll records, call detail records, and cell-site information for the target telephones over a four month period. The agency stated that it needed this information, so that it could provide evidence that Timothy Sanders, Timothy Carpenter, and other unknown individuals were involved in the robberies. These requests were granted by the judges. The government charged Carpenter and Sanders with robbery and several other crimes. Carpenter and Sanders moved to suppress the cell-site information on Fourth Amendment grounds and argued that the records could have only been seized with a warrant supported by probable cause. This request was denied by the district court and defendants were convicted for multiple crimes.

What was the Sixth Circuit’s decision?

The decision of the district court to allow the cell-sit information was challenged on appeal by Carpenter and Sanders and was brought to the Sixth Circuit. The Sixth Circuit agreed with the district court and decided that the collection of cell-site data was not a search and therefore did not violate the Fourth Amendment.

Why does this case matter?

This case is important because it shows where we draw the line with what network surveillance will trigger the Fourth Amendment protection. This decision implicates the “Third-Party” Doctrine, which states that information given to third parties (e.g., cell-phone companies and ISP providers) is not protected by the Fourth Amendment. The Supreme Court’s decision to review this Sixth Circuit decision probably means that the law will be cleared up in this area and they will determine if this information should be protected by the Fourth Amendment.

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