As it turns out, the Fourth Amendment has recently been front and center in two high-profile cases before the Supreme Court of the United States concerning newly developed technology: one holding that a warrant is required when placing a GPS tracking device on a suspect’s vehicle and the other holding that a warrant is required before searching cell phones seized during arrests.
Interestingly enough, the nation’s high court will once again be revisiting this still-developing area of the law in Carpenter v. U.S., a case asking whether law enforcement officials need a warrant to secure cell site location information outlining the previous paths taken by criminal suspects.
For those unfamiliar with cell site location information — or CSLI — it is retained by service providers and essentially reveals the cellphone towers to which individuals connect at the time of calls or other phone usage. This information, in turn, can be used in criminal investigations to link suspects to particular sites.
In Carpenter, law enforcement officials used CSLI to place the defendant at the scene of multiple armed robberies in Ohio and Michigan, and proved vital in securing a conviction.
Here, efforts to suppress the CSLI on the grounds it was secured in violation of the Fourth Amendment were defeated, while an appeal to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit met a similar fate.
On Monday, SCOTUS agreed to hear the case during its next term, which commences in October.
Attorneys representing Carpenter have argued that law enforcement must have probable cause and, by extension, a warrant to secure CSLI given that it reveals sensitive and otherwise private information.
“The time has come for the Supreme Court to make clear that the longstanding protections of the Fourth Amendment apply with undiminished force to these kinds of sensitive digital records,” said one of the ACLU attorneys handling the case.
For its part, the government has advanced two arguments.
First, the establishment of the “third-party doctrine” in Smith v. Maryland, a 1979 case in which SCOTUS held that the right to privacy (i.e., the need to secure a warrant) did not extend to numbers dialed from a phone given that this information was voluntarily turned over to the phone company, a third party.
Second, a provision of the Stored Communications Act, a federal law passed back in 1986, which provides that while prosecutors do indeed have to go court to secure phone tracking data, they need only show “reasonable grounds” for seeking the information, and that it is both “relevant and material” to the investigation.
Stay tuned for updates …
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