Supreme Court Decision on Cell Phone Location Data

In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court held 5-4 in favor of requiring law enforcement officials to obtain a search warrant before demanding the production of personal location data from cell service providers. This data is commonly known as Cell-Site Location Information (CSLI).

What is CSLI?

CSLI is data collected by cell sites/towers from each individual customer’s phone. Actively used cell phones send location data back to cell towers all around the United States. When you place a call, send a text, or even open certain applications, a signal is pinged from your phone to the closest cell site location. Signals are sometimes even transmitted from cell phones without any physical operation by the user. By analyzing which towers receive signals at different times, cell phone providers can track the location and movement of a specific device.

With 300,000 cell sites across the United States, how closely could you be tracked?

Case History and Decision

In Carpenter v. United States, law enforcement acquired 127 days of cell-site records, providing a basis for the defendant’s conviction. Within those records, the Government obtained 12,898 “location points” cataloging the defendant’s movements. Law enforcement was able to obtain these records from cell service providers (MetroPCS & Sprint) through court-ordered subpoenas. This is noteworthy because the probable cause requirements to obtain a subpoena are significantly lower than those required to obtain a search warrant. The defendant in Carpenter appealed his conviction, contending that police unconstitutionally invaded his privacy by not obtaining a warrant for his CSLI.

Carpenter’s appeal made it all the way to the United States Supreme Court. There, the Court ultimately held for Carpenter, stating “an individual maintains a legitimate expectation of privacy in the record of his physical movements as captured through CSLI”. Even though individual’s cell phone location records are held by a third party, Fourth Amendment protections still apply. With the passing of this decision, law enforcement officers are now required to obtain a search warrant before demanding the production of valuable CSLI information. As the role of technology in society expands, Carpenter stands as a victory for the cause of individual privacy.

If you or someone you know feels as though their privacy rights have been violated by law enforcement, contactthe relentless attorneys at Berry Law.

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