SCOTUS Opinion - Warrant Required to Get Cell Phone Tower Records

In a surprising decision in Carpenter v. U.S.the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) ruled that law enforcement must have a warrant in order to seek historical cell phone tower records that can accurately identify the location of a person based upon the tower their cell phone was using at the time. These cell phone tower records can be critical to connecting the dots between a lot of circumstantial evidence and a suspect. To understand this greater, let’s walk through a rudimentary hypothetical:

An individual wakes up to their shed burning. A neighbor saw a sedan being driven by a female with average height and size. Through the course of the investigation, law enforcement lands on a suspect who has a sedan that matches the loose description by the witness. While the suspect denies that she was anywhere near the scene of the accident, law enforcement used to be able to subpoena the suspect’s cell phone tower records. Assuming everyone keeps their phone on them at all times, if these records show that the suspect was using cell towers near the scene of the crime and not by her house as alleged, then the State has stronger evidence showing she was the culprit.

Before the Carpenter case, obtaining these records was not an issue under the “third-party doctrine,” which simply stands for the proposition that a person has no reasonable expectation of privacy in records maintained by a third party. Typically, this relates to bank records. It’s easy to see how it could apply to cell phone records. But, Chief Judge Roberts focused on how cell phones contain a tremendous amount of personal and private information that a person would reasonably expect to keep private. And for this reason, Carpenter expressly overruled the application of this “third-party doctrine” to cell phone tower records.

The overriding theme in the Court’s decision was an effort to evolve the law with the ever-changing world – particularly as applied to technology advances. Chief Judge Roberts stressed how cell phones are not only critical to being able to function in today’s society, but that they are also ubiquitous with the person – i.e. cell phones are literally attached to the person’s hip. We’ve all had that dread when we didn’t know where our cell phones were. Apparently Chief Judge Roberts has too. And because of this, the Fourth Amendment cannot allow for the equivalent of 24/7 surveillance of a persons whereabouts through the use of the cell phone tower records.

This opinion will surely lead to heavy litigation about just how expansive this ruling was intended to be. As the linked summary even suggests, the opinion may be so limited in scope that it would not require a warrant to obtain the same records on the date of the alleged crime (whereas the case involved records that covered a full week). On the flip side, the limiting of the “third party doctrine” can be useful when attacking the gathering of other similar type records. Point being, this new case is just the starting point for a whole new area of litigation that can have profound impacts on criminal cases.