The United States Supreme Court has decided the case of Carpenter v. United States, holding that police must obtain a search warrant based on probable cause prior to getting cell phone location data from a cell phone provider. In Carpenter, law enforcement officers had obtained cell phone location data for the defendant which linked the defendant to various gunpoint robberies without a search warrant. Therefore, the court reversed the defendant’s conviction and remanded the case for a new trial.
The Facts of Carpenter v. United States
In 2011, police arrested four men for robbing a number of Radio Shack and T-Mobile stores in Detroit. One of the men confessed that over the previous four months, the group (along with other individuals) had robbed nine different stories in Michigan and Ohio. The suspect identified 15 other people who had participated in the robberies. He gave the FBI some of their cell phone numbers. The FBI then reviewed his call records to identify additional numbers that he had called around the time of the robberies.
Based on this information, the FBI began to suspect Timothy Carpenter, the defendant, of participating in some of the robberies. The FBI obtained court orders under the Stored Communications Act to obtain cell phone records for Carpenter and other suspects. That statute permitted the FBI to compel the disclosure of cell phone records from the cell phone provider based on a showing of specific and articulable facts that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the records sought are relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation. These court orders are not the same as a search warrant, and the showing necessary to obtain one is much lower than the probable cause standard which law enforcement officers must meet when seeking a search warrant.
The FBI agents obtained two orders from federal magistrate judges directing MetroPCS and Sprint to disclose cell site location data for Carpenter’s phones. The first order sought 152 days of cell-site records from MetroPCS, and MetroPCS produced 127 days worth of records. The second order directed Sprint to produce two days of records for when Carpenter’s phone was roaming in Ohio, and Sprint produced the two days worth of records. In total, the FBI obtained 12,898 location points cataloging Carpenter’s movements – an average of 101 data points per day.
The Criminal Charges Against Carpenter
The Government eventually charged Carpenter in federal court with six counts of robbery and six counts of carrying a firearm during a federal crime of violence in violation of 18 U.S.C. Sec. 924(c) and 1951(a). Prior to trial, Carpenter’s defense attorneys filed a motion to suppress the cell phone location data, arguing that the FBI violated the Fourth Amendment when it obtained the location data without a search warrant supported by probable cause. The trial court denied the motion to suppress, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.
Carpenter proceeded to trial, and seven of his co-conspirators testified against him. They indicated that he was the leader of the robbery operation. In addition, an FBI agent offered expert testimony regarding the cell phone data. The agent explained that each time a cell phone taps into a wireless network, the carrier logs a time-stamped record of the cell site and the particular sector that were used. With this information, the FBI agent was able to produce maps that placed Carpenter’s phone near the scene of four of the charged robberies. According to the Government, this data showed that Carpenter was right where the robbery occurred at the exact time of the robbery. The jury found Carpenter guilty of all of the charges except one of the gun charges, and the trial court sentenced him to more than 100 years in prison.
The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s ruling on the motion to suppress. It held that Carpenter lacked a reasonable expectation of privacy in the cell phone location data because the information had been shared with his wireless carriers. Given that cell phone users voluntarily convey cell-site data to their carriers in order to use the phone, the court concluded that the business records produced by the carriers are not subject to Fourth Amendment protection on the basis that there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in something that a person has shared with someone else.
The Supreme Court Appeal
Carpenter’s defense lawyers appealed to the United States Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court accepted the case. In what it described as a narrow opinion, the Supreme Court reversed the conviction and ruled that the trial court should have granted the motion to suppress the cell phone location data. The court noted a number of recent opinions in which the Fourth Amendment has been applied to protect not just places, but also other types of information that people would expect to be private. For example, in Kyllo v. United States, the court held that police could not use a thermal imager to detect heat radiating from the side a defendant’s home (as part of searching for a marijuana grow operation) without a search warrant. Likewise, in Riley v. United States, the court found that law enforcement generally must obtain a search warrant prior to searching a suspect’s cell phone and that the search incident to arrest exception to the warrant requirement does not apply to a cell phone. Finally, in United States v. Jones, the Supreme Court held that police must obtain a search warrant prior to secretly planting a GPS tracker underneath a suspect’s car and monitoring the tracker for 28 days.
At the same time, the court noted that the third-party doctrine would normally defeat Carpenter’s claim. The third-party doctrine provides that police are not required to obtain a search warrant in order to obtain information which a person has voluntarily shared with third parties. Thus, police may obtain bank records via subpoena without obtaining a search warrant because a person has voluntarily shared their financial information with the bank. Likewise, police need not obtain a search warrant in order to obtain a list of outgoing phone numbers dialed on a landline telephone because the information provided by such a pen register is limited and the numbers are used by the telephone company for a variety of legitimate business purposes.
After analyzing these various cases, the Supreme Court ultimately concluded that the FBI should have obtained a search warrant for the cell phone data. Although the third-party doctrine has typically applied in cases such as this, where the defendant shared all of the information voluntarily with the cell phone companies, there is something different about a system that creates such a detailed and comprehensive record of the person’s movements. Accordingly, 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. The court therefore held that an individual maintains a legitimate expectation of privacy in the record of his or her physical movements as captured by the cell phone companies.
Although the court reversed the conviction in this case, it did note that the decision is meant to be a narrow one. It does not necessarily apply to real-time cell phone location data or “tower dumps” (a download of information on all of the devices that connected to a particular cell site during a particular interval). It should also not call into question the prior opinions on bank records and pen registers or prevent the use of evidence obtained from security cameras. Finally, it does not consider other collection techniques involving foreign affairs or national security, and there may also be situations in which exigent circumstances eliminate the need for a search warrant.
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