Potentially recognizing that the frame work for when police and federal agents are required to seek a search warrant to obtain digital information has become outdated, the United States Supreme Court announced that it will review whether the police are required to get a search warrant in order to obtain a suspect’s cell phone records. Local and federal law enforcement routinely seek cell phone location data from a suspect’s telephone company in order to track the suspect’s whereabouts around the time of the crime. The location data can be extremely powerful as circumstantial evidence in cases where the cell phone data puts the suspect at or near the scene of the crime at the time of its commission. For example, if police believe that the suspect committed a homicide, they could use cell phone location data to show that the suspect was near the decedent at the time of the murder.
Current Standards for Obtaining Cell Phone Location Data
Under existing state and federal law, police officers are generally not required to obtain a search warrant in order to retrieve this information from a phone company. Instead, in many jurisdictions, law enforcement officers simply submit a request to the phone company, and the phone company will provide the information without a warrant and court order. In other jurisdictions, officers may be required to obtain a court order in order to retrieve the data, but the court orders may be issued on a standard of evidence lower than the probable cause standard required in order to obtain an actual search warrant. This is the case in federal court, where prosecutors must show only that there are “reasonable grounds” for the records and that they are “relevant and material” to an investigation.
Courts have traditionally allowed police to dispense with the warrant requirement in obtaining this type of data because the data is not stored in the suspect’s phone or on the suspect’s person. Instead, the defendant necessarily shared the data with a third-party, the phone company, by using the phone. Thus, courts have held that defendants do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in information that they have publicly shared or shared with third parties, and courts have not needed to obtain search warrants in order to obtain that type of information.
Reasonable Expectation of Privacy in Cell Phone Data
As a general rule, defendants may move to suppress the results of a search only where they had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the place searched. Obviously, you have a reasonable expectation of privacy in your home, car, and pockets, but courts have rejected the idea that a criminal defendant has a reasonable expectation of privacy in something that he or she has shared with a third party. This rule may have made sense twenty years ago before the advent of technology which literally tracks a person’s every movement. Devices like cell phones, sports watches, and GPS systems all track a person’s whereabouts at all times, making it much more difficult for the government to argue that a suspect should not have a privacy interest in the resulting data. If the government is not required to obtain a search warrant, then the government can essentially obtain all of the details of a person’s life without even having probable cause.
After recently determining that police must have a search warrant in order to search the contents of an arrestee’s search warrant, this case suggests that the High Court may be prepared to re-think the reasonable expectation of privacy doctrine given the realities of modern technology. The case on appeal is Carpenter v. United States. In Carpenter, without getting a search warrant which would have required probable cause, FBI agents obtained cell phone records for the defendant from his phone company which covered 127 days and revealed 12,898 separate points of location data. The data ultimately connected Carpenter to a string of cell phone store robberies, and Carpenter was convicted at trial. On appeal, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 that the Fourth Amendment does not require law enforcement to obtain a search warrant prior to seeking this type of data. Carpenter has appealed to the United States Supreme Court, and the Court will review whether the police should be required to obtain a search warrant in order to get this highly personal data. Search warrants are not particularly difficult for the government to obtain, and a decision in favor of Carpenter would limit the government’s ability to track your every movement without at least some showing of probable cause.
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Read the Sixth Circuit’s Opinion: https://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=14626167511079628834