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Supreme Court rules police need warrant to track your phone location

Proponents say the decision is a major win for consumer privacy

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The Supreme Court ruled on Friday that law enforcement must obtain a search warrant to get access to cell phone location information.

The 5-4 decision was written by Chief Justice John Roberts, who sided with the court’s four other liberal judges.

The decision is seen as a victory by advocates of increased privacy rights, who argued that protections were needed when the government gets involved with a third party -- like a phone provider -- to obtain information.

This is seen as a loss by the Justice Department, which argued that an individual’s privacy rights are diminished when it comes to information that has been voluntarily shared with others.

The background

The ruling follows a contentious ruling regarding a series of armed robberies that occurred in 2010 and 2011.

The police got a court order to get access to 127 days of cell phone tracking for a suspect named Timothy Carpenter. The location information found on Carpenter’s phone matched the robbery locations, and that information was used to convict him.

However, Carpenter appealed his conviction to the Supreme Court on the grounds that the police need to first obtain a warrant before getting his location from a cell-phone provider, as is stated in the Constitution.

Rather than obtain a warrant, which would have required the police to prove to a judge there was probable cause to believe the phone records contained evidence, the police opted to obtain a court order under the Stored Communications Act.

“The government’s position fails to contend with the seismic shifts in digital technology that made possible the tracking of not only Carpenter’s location, but also everyone else’s, not for a short period of time, but for years and years,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote.

Present day

Because of limited technologies seven years ago, the information used at Carpenter’s trial wasn’t as precise as location information taken off phones today. It didn’t log where he was when his phone wasn’t in use or where he was when he sent texts. Police personnel were able to see his location where he made phone calls within a mile to two miles, which worked in their favor in terms of the robberies.

Last November when this case made its way to the Supreme Court, justices were conflicted on whether they wanted to break with the third-party doctrine, which states that there is no reasonable expectation of privacy when an individual shares information with a third party (phone provider). Under this doctrine, police wouldn’t need a search warrant to obtain the pertinent information.

However, many justices have noted the stark differences in technology from when these laws were written to the present day. Chief Justice Roberts noted that allowing government access to historical GPS data represented an infringement of Carpenter’s Fourth Amendment Rights.  

“This is a groundbreaking victory for Americans’ privacy rights in the digital age,” said ACLU attorney Nathan Freed Wessler. “The Supreme Court has given privacy law an update that it has badly needed for many years, finally bringing it in line with the realities of modern life. The government can no longer claim that the mere act of using technology eliminates the Fourth Amendment’s protections.”

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