Major Decision for the Collection of Digital Information During Investigations

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In what is perhaps the most important United States Supreme Court decision of the past 25 years, the Court in July handed down perhaps its biggest ruling of the digital era, ruling that police need to have a search warrant to collect Cell Site Location Information (“CSLI”) stored by cellphone service providers such as Verizon, AT&T, and others.

CSLI is the records of which particular cell tower your phone is connecting with at any given time. By analyzing which towers a person’s phone is connecting with, CSLI can be used to essentially pinpoint a person’s actual location in the world and more or less functions in the same way as GPS does. While the Carpenter case is about CSLI only, the ruling has far-ranging implications for police investigations nationwide, which are frequently turning to CSLI evidence, particularly drug trafficking investigations.

But the Carpenter decision will almost certainly apply to all other manner of information collected about people and stored by tech companies (such as internet service providers, websites, etc.). In its ruling, SCOTUS rejected the government’s expansive argument that people waive their right to privacy simply by using those technologies via something called the “third-party doctrine.”

Timothy Carpenter was convicted in 2013 for a string of burglaries in Detroit, Michigan. Police suspected he was involved, but did not have enough evidence to tie him to the burglaries. The FBI obtained—without a warrant—his CSLI from his service provider, which gave them nearly 13,000 data points to track his whereabouts during the relevant time period. This allowed the FBI to figure out where he lived, travelled, visited, spent time, and much more. As Chief Justice Roberts wrote, “when the government tracks the location of a cell phone it achieves near perfect surveillance, as if it had attached an ankle monitor to the phone’s user.”

Mr. Carpenter argued that the FBI had violated his Fourth Amendment rights by obtaining such detailed, personal information without a search warrant. SCOTUS ultimately held that the Fourth Amendment must apply to such records, even though they are held by third-party companies such as Verizon: “Mapping a cell phone’s location over the course of 127 days provides and all-encompasing record of the holder’s whereabouts. As with GPS information, the timestamped data provides an intimate window to the person’s life, revealing not only his particular movements, but through them his ‘familial, political, professional, religious, and sexual associations.”

The government had argued it did not need a warrant because people do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy to CSLI on account of it being stored by a third-party, i.e., a cellphone company, and thus was not protected by the Fourth Amendment. SCOTUS rejected that argument out of hand, stating, “There is a world of difference between the limited types of personal information addressed” by the 1970s doctrine, “and the exhaustive chronicle of location information casually collected by wireless carriers today,” the decision reads. Back then, “few could have imagined a society in which a phone goes wherever its owner goes, conveying to the wireless carrier not just dialed digits, but a detailed and comprehensive record of the person’s movements.”

In other words, in the government’s eyes, none of our sensitive information held by tech companies would be protected under the constitution; the government would be free to do whatever it wanted with it. That would mean that the government could look at your Google emails, your Facebook photos, what items you purchased from Amazon, and god knows what else. But this is just the tip of the iceberg—as our society gets more and more digitized, more and more of our personal information (such as health and wellness data) is stored via third-party websites, apps, and other internet-connected devices. The government wants easy access to all of it whenever it wants.

While the Carpenter decision extends only to CSLI, it stands to reason that the decision would equally apply to protect other types of data generated by popular technologies (think, IP addresses, search histories, etc.) The ramifications of this decision are only beginning to reverberate.

Carpenter is an absolutely groundbreaking case—literally one of the most monumental SCOTUS decisions in decades—because it protects our privacy rights in the digital age and extends Fourth Amendment protections to technological advances that could have never been imagined by the Framers. CSLI is a powerful tool and was ripe for being abused by overzealous police to surveil people without a warrant. SCOTUS put an end to that practice. It recognized that “cell phones and the services they provide are ‘such a pervasive and insistent part of our daily life that carrying one is indispensable to participation in modern society.” Carpenter makes clear that Americans do not give up our Fourth Amendment rights simply because we used our cell phones as part of modern life.

If you or a loved one have had your cell phones searched or seized by police, or believe you are the subject of a police investigation, contact a Tucson criminal defense attorney at the Law Office of Hernandez & Hamilton, PC today to schedule a free consultation.

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