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The Supreme Court Holds That Police Require A Search Warrant To Get A Person’s Historical Cell Location Data


In another decision reinforcing the rights of an accused person under the Fourth Amendment, the United States Supreme Court recently ruled in Carpenter v. United States that the police need to get a warrant in order to get the historical cell phone location data related to a person’s cell phone. When the police proceed to get a person’s historical cell location data without a search warrant supported by probable cause, the police violate the Fourth Amendment.

Every time a person uses his or her cell phone, it connects to one or more cell tower and the person’s location can be triangulated and stored by the cell phone company. Over time, the cell phone company’s records can show where a person was at a particular time. These records may be stored for a long period of time depending on the cell phone company’s internal retention policies.

The police and prosecutors can use this information to place a person at a particular location and make a case for why the person was the perpetrator of a crime based on his location in addition to other pieces of evidence.

In Carpenter, Mr. Carpenter was a suspect in a series of robberies. As part of their investigation, the FBI requested Mr. Carpenter’s cell site records and those of several other suspects and cross referenced them with the cell phone numbers from the suspects. While they got court orders pursuant to a federal law for the cell site records from the cell phone companies, they failed to get search warrants.

By getting this information, the FBI was able to track Mr. Carpenter for a period of 127 days. Using this information in the trial against Mr. Carpenter, the prosecution was able to place him near the crime scenes of the robberies and get a conviction.

In making the ruling in Carpenter, the Supreme Court found that cell phone technology enabling the tracking of an individual through cell towers was more like GPS tracking. Cell phones were not like traditional telephones in this regard, and so the old law that applied to telephones did not apply in this case, where a person did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy when the phone transmitted information to the carrier.

Moving forward, the police can still get the information they were able to get regarding the historical cell location of a person’s cell phone, however, they will have to obtain a warrant for this information first. A warrant may or may not be difficult for the police to get depending on what other evidence they have that a person was involved in a crime. The Court’s decision will prove useful in filing a motion to suppress evidence in cases where the police fail to get a warrant in cases where they should have.

Contact an Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney

If you are charged with a criminal offense, you need to consult a criminal defense attorney as soon as possible to determine if you have viable defenses, or if there are motions that can be filed to suppress the evidence against you. If you are facing criminal charges in West Palm Beach, Florida, you need an experienced criminal defense attorney representing you. Contact Scott Berry Law for a free consultation today.


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