Cops Need Warrant to Obtain Cellphone Data, High Court Rules

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Supreme Court building, Washington. Photo by Matt Wade via Flickr

The Supreme Court ruled on Friday that police generally need a search warrant if they want to track criminal suspects’ movements by collecting information about where they’ve used their cellphones, The Associated Press reports. 

The 5-4 decision is a victory for privacy in the digital age. Police collection of cellphone tower information has become an important tool in criminal investigations. The case marks a major change in how police can obtain phone records.

Authorities can obtain information about the numbers dialed from a home telephone without presenting a warrant. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion, joined by the court’s four liberals.

Roberts said the decision is limited to cellphone tracking information and does not affect other business records, including those held by banks. “We hold only that a warrant is required in the rare case where the suspect has a legitimate privacy interest in records held by a third party,” he said. He added that police still can respond to an emergency and obtain records without a warrant.

Justices Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch dissented. Kennedy said the court’s “new and uncharted course will inhibit law enforcement” and “keep defendants and judges guessing for years to come.”

In a separate dissent, Alito said, “I fear that today’s decision will do far more harm than good.” He said “it guarantees a blizzard of litigation while threatening many legitimate and valuable investigative practices.”

The appeal was brought by Timothy Carpenter, who was sentenced to 116 years in prison for his role in robberies of Radio Shack and T-Mobile stores in Michigan and Ohio. Cell tower records that investigators got without a warrant bolstered the case against Carpenter. Investigators got the cell tower records with a court order that requires a lower standard than the “probable cause” needed to obtain a warrant.

The American Civil Liberties Union, representing Carpenter, said a warrant would provide protection against unjustified government snooping. Technology companies including Apple, Facebook and Google urged the Justices to continue bringing Fourth Amendment law into the modern era, reports the New York Times.

“No constitutional doctrine should presume,” their brief said, “that consumers assume the risk of warrantless government surveillance simply by using technologies that are beneficial and increasingly integrated into modern life.”

This summary was prepared by Ted Gest, president of Criminal Justice Journalists, and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report.

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