SCOTUS decides government needs warrant to obtain cellphone location data

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court has ruled that law enforcement will need a search warrant to obtain a citizen’s cellphone location data. Chief Justice John Roberts swung with the court’s four liberal-leaning justices for the prevailing opinion while the four conservative justices, in a rare move, each wrote dissents.

Up until now, such data could obtained by police and other agencies as long as it was assured that it is relevant evidence to building a case against the suspected. However, this decision gives the search Fourth Amendment privacy protections and would require “probably cause” for prosecuting parties to achieve a warrant.

Citizens generally give up their Fourth Amendment protection if they contribute items and information to a third party. In this particular case, Timothy Carpenter was being tried for armed robbery and the police implicated his involvement based on location data obtained by Carpenter’s wireless carrier. His lawyers argued that since the data was not obtained through a warrant that it was not admissible as evidence.

In his opinion, Chief Justice Roberts says the ruling will be applied narrowly to historical records perhaps at least 7 days old and that no opinion has been made on real-time record collecting. SCOTUSblog reports that Roberts also made allowances for warrantless collections to be made in emergency situations such as “bomb threats, active shootings, and child abductions.” That said, this does not mean that the government has “unrestricted access” of location data from networks.

Dissenting opinions generally were against the restriction of the government’s ability to enforce law and claim that the decision is a protective facade of citizens’ privacy rights.

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Jules Wang
Jules Wang is News Editor for Pocketnow and one of the hosts of the Pocketnow Weekly Podcast. He came onto the team in 2014 as an intern editing and producing videos and the podcast while he was studying journalism at Emerson College. He graduated the year after and entered into his current position at Pocketnow, full-time.