Supreme Court Rules That Government Acquisition of Historical Cell-Site Information Requires a Warrant

Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court decided on Carpenter v. U.S., a case that FEDagent previously reported on. In a majority opinion delivered by Chief Justice Roberts, the Court held that the third-party doctrine does not apply to cell-site location information, and the acquisition of historical cell-site location information is a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment, for which the government would generally have to obtain a warrant.

In 2011, police officers arrested four men suspected of robbing a series of Radio Shack and T-Mobile stores in and around Detroit, MI. One of the men confessed to the crimes and provided the FBI with his cellphone number and the numbers of some of the accomplices that participated in the heists. One of these individuals was Timothy Carpenter.

Based on this information, the prosecutors applied for court orders under the Stored Communications Act to obtain cell phone records for Carpenter from his wireless carriers, MetroPCS and Sprint. The Stored Communications Act, 18 U.S.C. § 2703(d), permits the government to compel the disclosure of certain telecommunications records when it “offers specific and articulable facts showing that there are reasonable grounds to believe” that the records sought “are relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation.”

Federal magistrate judges issued two orders directing Carpenter’s wireless carriers to disclose cell-site information for Carpenter’s cell phone during the fourth-month period when the string of robberies occurred. The first order sought 152 days of cell-site records from MetroPCS, which produced records spanning 127 days, and the second order sought seven days of cell-site information from Sprint, which produced two days of records.

Carpenter was charged with 6 counts of robbery and 6 counts of carrying a firearm during a federal crime of violence. He then moved to suppress the cell-site data provided by the wireless carriers, and the district court denied the motion. Carpenter was convicted on all but one of the firearm counts and sentenced to more than 100 years in prison.

The Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed, holding that Carpenter lacked a reasonable expectation of privacy in the location information collected by the FBI because he had shared that information with his wireless carriers. The Supreme Court then granted certiorari.

The Court began its analysis by noting how requests for cell-site records lie at the intersection of two lines of cases. The first set of cases addresses a person’s expectation of privacy in his physical location and movements. In United States v. Knotts, 460 U.S. 276 (1983), the Court held that the government’s use of a “beeper” to track a vehicle through traffic did not constitute a search because a person traveling in an automobile on public roads has no reasonable expectation of privacy in his movements. Three decades later, in United States v. Jones, 565 U.S. 400 (2012), the Court considered more sophisticated surveillance than the beeper at issue in Knotts and held that the government’s installment of a GPS tracking device to track a vehicle for 28 days was a search since a GPS monitors “every movement” a person makes in the vehicle.

In a second set of cases, the Court has drawn a line between what a person keeps to himself and what he shares with others. In United States v. Miller, 425 U.S. 435 (1976), the Court held that the government’s collection of bank records from a defendant’s bank was not a search because the defendant took a risk in revealing his information to the bank that he could then have expected to be conveyed by the bank to another, like the government. Three years later, in Smith v. Maryland, 442 U.S. 735 (1979), the Court ruled that the government’s use of a pen register – a device that recorded the outgoing phone numbers dialed on a landline telephone – was also not a search because the defendant assumed the risk that the telephone company’s records could be divulged to the police.

The Court here had to decide how to apply the Fourth Amendment to “a new phenomenon,” the ability to chronicle a person’s past movements through the record of his cell phone signals. Like the GPS monitoring in Jones, cell phone location information is “detailed, encyclopedic, and effortlessly compiled.” At the same time, the fact that the individual continuously reveals his location to his wireless carrier implicates the third-party doctrine of Smith and Miller.

The Court was sure to recognize the role of technology in this case, stating that when Smith was decided in 1979, few could have imagined a society where a phone goes wherever its owner goes, conveying to the wireless carrier not just dialed digits, but a detailed and comprehensive record of the person’s movements. The Court then declined to extend Smith and Miller to cover the unique circumstances at issue.

The Court stated that mapping a cell phone’s location over the course of 127 days provides an all-encompassing record of the user’s whereabouts. As with the GPS information in Jones, the time-stamped data provides an “intimate window” into a person’s life, revealing his particular movements and associations.  When the government accessed cell site information from the wireless carriers here, it invaded Carpenter’s reasonable expectation of privacy in all of his physical movements. Thus, the Court held that the location information obtained from Carpenter’s wireless carriers was the product of a search.

The Court stressed that its ruling “is a narrow one” that applies only to historical cell-site location records. The Court stated that it does not express a view on other privacy issues like real-time cell-site location records or obtaining information on all devices connected to a particular cell-site at a particular time. The Court also stated that its ruling does not disturb the application of Smith and Miller or call into question conventional surveillance techniques and tools.

Having found the acquisition of Carpenter’s cell site information was a search, the Court concluded that the government must obtain a warrant supported by probable cause before acquiring these records. Here, it did not. The government acquired the cell-site records pursuant to a court order issued under the Stored Communications Act, which required the government to show “reasonable grounds” for believing the records were “relevant and materials to an ongoing investigation.” This showing falls short of the probable cause required for a warrant.

As such, the Court reversed the judgment of the Sixth Circuit, and remanded the case for further proceedings.

Read the full case: Carpenter v. U.S


This case law update was written by Michael J. Sgarlat, Associate Attorney, Shaw Bransford & Roth, PC.

For thirty years, Shaw Bransford & Roth P.C. has provided superior representation on a wide range of federal employment law issues, from representing federal employees nationwide in administrative investigations, disciplinary and performance actions, and Bivens lawsuits, to handling security clearance adjudications and employment discrimination cases.

Posted in Case Law Update

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