On June 22, 2018 the Supreme Court of the United States made a historical decision regarding the privacy rights of cellphone users. The case explored the expectation of privacy that the petitioner, Timothy Ivory Carver, had when using his cellphone. What began as the armed robbery of one Detroit, Michigan Radio Shack turned into a ground-breaking ruling regarding how prosecutors are able to obtain data collected by cell phone companies. Carpenter’s case was built around the Fourth Amendment protections that he believed should have prevented law enforcement officials from learning about his movements by obtaining cell phone records.
In December of 2010, a few weeks before Christmas, a Radio Shack in Detroit, Michigan was robbed by multiple armed individuals. The robbery was the first of several in the area that occurred between December 2010 and March 2011 before four of the suspected robbers were arrested in April of 2011. Timothy Carpenter, the petitioner, was not arrested, but after one of the individuals arrested surrendered his cellphone, the FBI agents reviewed calls made from his cell phone when the robberies were committed.
After obtaining the phone, the FBI agents were granted the right to obtain “transactional records” from a magistrate judge under the Stored Communications Act. These records included the subscriber details, call records (including unlisted numbers), cell site information, along with the toll records of 16 different phone numbers subscribed to multiple wireless carriers. Using the cell site records, it was determined that Carpenter’s cellphone was within a two-mile radius of four of the nine robberies committed by the suspects who were arrested.
Carpenter was arrested based on this information and charged with multiple counts of aiding and abetting robbery along with one count of aiding and abetting the use or carriage of a firearm during a federal crime of violence. His motion to suppress the data obtained because it was obtained without a warrant was denied. Using the data, the FBI built a case that alleged Carpenter planned the robberies, helped acquire guns, and waited for his accomplices at another location while the robberies were being committed. Carpenter was convicted after a trial by jury and sentenced to 116 years in federal prison.
Once Carpenter was convicted, his attorney immediately appealed the decision on the basis that his Fourth Amendment rights were violated because he never consented to a search of his cellphone records. His attorneys claimed that a government entity should only be able to compel a third-party wireless provider to surrender records through the use of a search warrant. They believed the government’s method for obtaining access to the records that led to Carpenter’s arrest allowed them to circumvent the requirements of proving probable cause for a search warrant to be granted. Carpenter and his lawyers maintained that he had an expectation of privacy in regards to his cellphone records.
Carpenter’s appeal was heard by the Supreme Court of the United States on June 22. The court decided that the government does need a warrant to access cell phone data, including cell site location information. The majority opinion of the case stated that in spite of the fact that the detailed information is gathered by a third-party, it does not deserve Fourth Amendment protection. In a five-to-four decision, the Supreme Court decided that the decision to own and use a cellphone that stores data does not mean access to this data cannot be granted without first obtaining a warrant.
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