A recent case from the United States Supreme Court addressed the issue of whether law enforcement must obtain a search warrant before obtaining cell phone data that tracks the past locations of the individual. The case, Carpenter v. United States, now stands for the requirement that the police obtain a court approved search warrant prior to accessing cell phone data that tracked a person’s movements.
In Carpenter, Timothy Carpenter was convicted of several armed robbery offenses in Ohio and Michigan with the assistance of cell phone location data that linked him to the crime scenes. That information was obtained without a search warrant.
Chief Justice Roberts, in delivering the opinion of the Court, stated that “a cell phone is almost a feature of human anatomy and that a cell phone faithfully follows its owner beyond public thoroughfares and into privates residences, doctors’ offices, political headquarters and other potentially revealing locales.” Thus, 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.”
Due to this concern for the surveillance state that would be created if law enforcement was granted unfettered access to cell phone data, the Court declined “to grant the state unrestricted access to a wireless carriers’ database of physical location information.”
Unfortunately, while this is certainly a victory for those who are concerned with law enforcement’s ever-growing surveillance practices and procedures, obtaining a warrant is hardly a difficult hurdle to overcome. Moreover, once the warrant is granted, law enforcement will be able to obtain the cell phone tracking data. Thus, while this is a victory, albeit small, search warrants are still easily obtained by law enforcement and this ruling may not have much impact over time.
Columbus and Delaware, Ohio Criminal Defense Attorney
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