Case will decide if police need a warrant to track cellphones

A current Supreme Court case will determine if police need a search warrant to track cell phones.

The U.S. Supreme Court is currently hearing a case, Carpenter v. United States, that could have major implications for police powers and privacy rights in the digital age. As NPR reports, the case will decide if police need to obtain a search warrant in order to track a cellphone. As cellphone technology becomes more sophisticated, privacy experts warn that allowing police to track suspects' cellphones without a warrant could seriously undermine Fourth Amendment protections. The case stems from a series of robberies in Michigan and Ohio in 2011.

Background of the case

In the 2011 robberies, a group of about 15 men robbed a series of Radio Shack stores in Michigan and Ohio. When police arrested four individuals suspected of the robberies, one person, Timothy Carpenter, was identified as the ringleader of the group. All of the members of the group eventually pleaded guilty to the robberies except for Carpenter and his half-brother.

To build their case, police relied on data from Carpenter's cellphone provider to establish his location during the robberies. Cellphones make contact with different cell towers and that communication between the cell tower and the cellphone itself can help establish the general vicinity that the cellphone user is in. The police did not have the probable cause that they would have needed for a search warrant, so instead they got a court order under the Stored Communications Act (SCA), which has a much lower threshold than a search warrant.

Serious implications no matter the result

The reason police were able to obtain an SCA warrant was because the cell tower data at issue in this case is stored by the suspect's wireless provider rather than by the suspect himself. A search warrant, on the other hand, is for instances when police intend to search a suspect's private property or body.

However, as Scientific American points out, the SCA was passed in 1986, well before cellphones became so ubiquitous. Nowadays, people regularly store personal and sensitive data on their cellphones, and that data is often stored by their cellphone provider. Privacy experts argue that with so much sensitive data stored on cellphones, police need to be forced to obtain a search warrant if they want to access any of that data, including cell tower data.

Whatever the result of the case, the implications will be profound and could lead to a significant curtailment of police powers or a worrying expansion of those powers.

Criminal defense help

Being charged with a criminal offense can be a frightening ordeal and the consequences of a conviction can last for the rest of one's life. However, an experienced criminal defense attorney can help, including by informing a client about his or her legal options and ensuring that police and prosecutors respect that client's constitutional rights.