Supreme Court Rules That Warrants Are Required For Cellphone Location Data

A new Supreme Court ruling has imposed new restrictions and limits on the ability for law enforcement to obtain cellphone data that can be used to determine the location of criminal suspects, as reported by Reuters.

In the 5-4 ruling in Carpenter v. United States, the court stated that government and law enforcement agencies generally require a court-approved warrant in order to track one's location data through their cellphone records.

Up until now, police typically obtained the data without a warrant by simply requesting the information from wireless carriers. The court came to the conclusion that obtaining the data without a warrant amounts to an unreasonable search and seizure, as outlined in the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The majority ruling was written by conservative Chief Justice John Roberts, who sided with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan (the four of whom are considered to be the more liberal of the court judges).

The decision ruled in favor of Timothy Carpenter, who was convicted and sentenced to over 115 years in jail for his involvement in a series of armed robberies at RadioShack and T-Mobile stores, between December, 2010, and March, 2011. While Carpenter was not arrested alongside his accomplices, law enforcement determined his involvement based on his location to crime scenes at the time of the robberies. This information was obtained by analyzing Carpenter's cell phone data.

Man checking his cell phone
Getty Images | Alex Wong

In his ruling, Roberts noted that cell phones are a "pervasive and insistent part of daily life."

"We decline to grant the state unrestricted access to a wireless carrier's database of physical location information."
American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Nate Wessler, who represented Carpenter throughout the trial, had this to say.
"Today's decision rightly recognizes the need to protect the highly sensitive location data from our cellphones, but it also provides a path forward for safeguarding other sensitive digital information in future cases -- from our emails, smart home appliances and technology that is yet to be invented."
However, Justice Roberts stressed that there are instances where police would not need to obtain a warrant for certain business records. Similarly, he noted that this ruling does not sort out other ongoing privacy concerns and issues, including whether or not law enforcement would need to obtain warrants in order to access real-time cellphone location data, which could be used to actively track suspects.

With a victory secured, Carpenter's case will now return to district courts. Since other evidence exists which ties him to the series of robberies, his conviction may still stand as is.