5-4: SCOTUS Just Ruled On Whether Law Enforcement Needs A Warrant To Get Phone Records

The United States Supreme Court narrowly decided a case concerning an individual’s right to privacy in the digital age. The case concerned whether or not law enforcement agencies need to secure a warrant from a judge to get access to a person’s phone records and other electronic information.

At question is whether or not a person’s privacy rights are diminished once they knowingly (and contractually) give their data to a third party, such as a cell phone company. Should the third party then own the data, which could include phone records and location pings, a law enforcement officer would freely be able to access it without a warrant.

On Friday, the country’s highest court decided in a 5 to 4 decision that a law enforcement officer does need a judge’s authorization before seizing the information.

“The Supreme Court says police generally need a search warrant if they want to track criminal suspects’ movements by collecting information about where they’ve used their cellphones,” ABC News reports.

Here’s more:

Police collection of cellphone tower information has become an important tool in criminal investigations.

The outcome marks a big change in how police can obtain phone records. Authorities can go to the phone company and obtain information about the numbers dialed from a home telephone without presenting a warrant.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion, joined by the court’s four liberals.

Roberts said the court’s decision is limited to cellphone tracking information and does not affect other business records, including those held by banks.

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As Fox News reports, Roberts was supported by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan

The majority opinion still said that electronic records could be collected without a warrant in the case of emergencies.

While some people are calling the decision a “victory for privacy in the digital age,” others are saying the court acted outside of the boundaries of the existing law – 1986 congressional law known as the Stored Communications Act.

Per Fox News:

The current appeal was brought by Timothy Carpenter, who was arrested for being part of a store robbery gang in Michigan and Ohio. He and a co-conspirator were convicted in part after police obtained archived cellphone records showing him near the scene of the crimes. Nearly 13,000 so-called “location points” from six months of Carpenter’s movements were obtained without warrant.

His 116-year prison term was upheld by a federal appeals court. He wanted the digital evidence dismissed, and his conviction overturned.

Per the report, Justice Anthony Kennedy dissented and warned “the court’s new and uncharted course will inhibit law enforcement and ‘keep defendants and judges guessing for years to come.’”

“This case should be resolved by interpreting accepted property principles as the baseline for reasonable expectations of privacy,” he also said. “Here the government did not search anything over which Carpenter could assert ownership or control. Instead, it issued a court-authorized subpoena to a third party to disclose information it alone owned and controlled. That should suffice to resolve this case.”

Justice Neil Gorsuch, who President Trump nominated to the bench, also dissented in the decision, as did Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.

Here’s more:

The government argued that under a 1986 congressional law known as the Stored Communications Act, it does not need “probable cause” to obtain archived customer records kept by the phone companies for business purposes.

Separately, police surveillance tracking of real-time movements — or wiretapping the actual conversations of a criminal suspect — still typically requires a judge’s authorization.

The high court has been grappling with the so-called “third party” doctrine since 1976, when it ruled bank records obtained without a warrant could be used to prosecute a Georgia moonshiner. The justices extended it three years later to include phone numbers used by a robbery suspect, though not the actual conversations themselves.


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