Supreme Court Agrees To Rule If Cops Need Warrant For Cell-Site Data

Supreme Court Agrees To Rule If Cops Need Warrant For Cell-Site Data

EnlargeDaniel Arvesen reader comments 11 Share this story The Supreme Court agreed Monday to decide its biggest privac

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issue now reaches the Supreme Court, as this method of surveillance has become an important crime-fighting tool following the justices’ 2012 ruling that a warrant is needed for the authorities to place GPS trackers on vehicles.

In that decision, however, the court skirted the third-party doctrine issue and instead said that the act of police affixing a GPS device to a vehicle amounted to a trespassing of sorts, so a warrant was needed.

At the time, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the third-party doctrine has come to a boil. In a concurring opinion, she wrote that the third-party doctrine is “ill-suited to the digital age, in which people reveal a great deal of information about themselves to third parties in the course of carrying out mundane tasks.”

The doctrine also provided the legal underpinnings of the National Security Agency’s telephone metadata snooping program disclosed by whistleblower Edward Snowden.

There’s hope the justices might resolve the cell-site issue in favor of consumer privacy. The justices sided with consumers the last time they ruled on a digital rights case. In 2014, the Supreme Court unanimously held that the authorities generally cannot search the mobile phones of those they arrest unless they have a court warrant.

“Given the increasing use of new forms of electronic surveillance, it’s important now more than ever that the Supreme Court steps in to push back against police overreach and clarify the protections of the Fourth Amendment,” said Harold Gurewitz, an attorney who, along with the ACLU, represents Detroit robbery suspect Timothy Carpenter.

The cell-site data the authorities got on Carpenter, convicted of six robbery counts, placed him near armed robberies of Radio Shack and T-Mobile stores. A federal appeals court rejected Carpenter’s contention that a warrant for the data was required. The Cincinnati-based 6th US Circuit Court of Appeals wrote (PDF) that phone companies must disclose the data if the authorities claim the information is “relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation.”

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