Justices to Decide If Warrants Are Needed for Cellphone Data

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The Supreme Court agreed today to decide whether law enforcement authorities need a warrant to track a suspect through his cellphone records, the Washington Post reports. The case seeks to resolve a digital-age question that divided lower courts relying on past Supreme Court precedents about privacy. “Only this court can provide the guidance they seek about whether and how a doctrine developed long before the digital age applies to the voluminous and sensitive digital records at issue here,” wrote American Civil Liberties Union lawyers for Timothy Carpenter. Investigating a string of armed robbers in the Midwest in 2010 and 2011, a prosecutor sought access to more than than five months of cellphone location records for Carpenter.

Law enforcement did not seek warrants based on probable cause, but asked for the records under the Stored Communications Act. According to Carpenter’s lawyers, such orders may be granted when the government has “reasonable grounds to believe that” the records sought “are relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation.” Carpenter was convicted of six robberies after testimony that the cellphone tower records showed him to be in the vicinity. On appeal, a divided three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit that no warrants were needed for the records because Carpenter “had no reasonable expectation of privacy in cellphone location records held by his service provider.” The Justice Department asked the court not to accept the case, saying Carpenter had not shown his rights were violated.

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