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Wednesday, August 1, 2018

FBI Needs Warrant to Download Cell Phone Data

At the end of its term in late June, the SCOTUS decided a Michigan case, holding that police must obtain a warrant prior to obtaining location and other data inside a suspect's cell phone. In so ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts said that modern digital technology allows wireless carriers to collect "deeply revealing" information about its customers.

This poses a problem under the 4th Amendment of the United States Constitution. The ruling was narrow to the extent that the High Court held open the prospect that police still may not need a warrant to obtain information about the location of a suspect on the day a crime was committed.

Tim Carpenter was convicted in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan for a series of armed robberies in Detroit and across Northern Ohio. The FBI used Carpenter's archived cell phone call location records to track his nearly every move over a long period of time.

Conservative critics of the decision feared that long-trusted law enforcement techniques may be compromised by a search warrant requirement. On the other hand, privacy advocates hailed the 5-4 ruling as a victory for our diminishing rights to digital privacy.

The issue presented in the case is whether law enforcement was required to first obtain a warrant from a neutral magistrate or judge prior to securing cell phone location data. In Carpenter, the data was so extensive, it was used to create a detailed map of the defendant's movements. This map was a powerful evidentiary component which led to the Defendant's conviction.

Although prior SCOTUS rulings have held that motorists do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy as to their driving movements, Justice Roberts held that people do not expect that the police are tracking their every move over a long period of time. The decision focused on the qualitative sea-change in digital data and its availability at the expense of basic privacy.

Historic cell phone location data and "real-time" cell phone location data are distinguished in Roberts' narrow ruling. Only the former would require a warrant, not the latter.

The bloc of conservative Justices asserted that the 4th Amendment, in its original context, did not apply to the method law enforcement used to collect ordinary business records.

Thus, for now, cell phone records have significant 4th Amendment protection under this narrow ruling. What is less clear is whether other forms of personal digital data will receive the same level of protection.

We here at Clarkston Legal have seen many criminal cases turn on the admission of maps based on cell phone data. The exclusionary rule implicit in the 4th Amendment is directly at issue in such cases.

The SCOTUS has decided a half-dozen significant cell phone related privacy cases. We will continue to monitor the High Court's docket to report on these interesting decisions.

Post #618

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