Privacy Prevails: Supreme Court Rules That Warrant Is Required For Cellphone Location Data

Supreme CourtIn a major win for privacy, the Supreme Court has ruled 5-4 in a decision on Friday that police need warrants to gather phone location data as evidence for trials. The decision is a reversal of  the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Carpenter v. United States.

Carpenter was implicated in a 2011 robbery in Detroit after which police acquired months of phone location data from his phone provider. The data showed that he was 12,898 different locations over 127 days.  The Sixth Circuit decision simply ruled that the cellphone was not protected under the Fourth Amendment — a decision that would blow a huge hole in privacy rights in America.

Chief Justice John Roberts broke from the right of the Court to rule that the government’s searches of Carpenter’s phone records did constitute a Fourth Amendment search.  Roberts noted that the rising use of cellphones and their data presents a growing challenge to privacy: “The Government’s position fails to contend with the seismic shifts in digital technology that made possible the tracking of not only Carpenter’s location but also everyone else’s, not for a short period but for years and years.”

Roberts was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

Apple, Facebook and Google, filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the Supreme Court, supporting a higher standard for access.

The most welcomed element was the recognition that cellphones are now such a common part of life “that carrying one is indispensable to participation in modern society.” However, Roberts noted that the ruling is “a narrow one” and applies only to cell-site location records.  He stressed that data from a shorter period of time might be permitted on a warrantless basis.  The opinion also expressly reserves the question of such warrantless demands as cell-site location records in real time. He also noted exigent exceptions such as the need to deal with “bomb threats, active shootings, and child abductions.”

Even with the narrowing language, it was a good day for privacy.

Here is the decision: Carpenter Opinion

23 thoughts on “Privacy Prevails: Supreme Court Rules That Warrant Is Required For Cellphone Location Data”

  1. Even the Supremes can come to the right conclusion occasionally.

    While that initial comment drips with sarcasm, it is meant to establish one critical fact: One does not have to have any legal experience to become a Supreme Court Justice. All it takes is reading comprehension. The Fourth Amendment simply states that Confess shall make no law causing a person’s papers to be used against them without issuance of a proper warrant. It also created a ban against unreasonable search and seizure.

    How hard is it that four Supreme Court Justices couldn’t reach that same conclusion from reading the Constitution?

  2. What about geographical data generated by toll road and credit card records? Or,is the judgment volume sensitive?

  3. What does this do to staus of other similar convictions / prosecutions? Is the evidence to convict affected like the fruit of the poisonous tree? Regarding all previous trials which used similarly obtained evidence?

  4. Good call. What I find amazing is that 4 justices don’t see a cell phone as part of a persons effects as outlined in the 4th amendment.

    1. Using Webster’s Dictionary definition of “Conservative”, the ACLU is actually “Conservative” on constitutional due process and the constitutional rule of law. There are few members of Congress that are real Conservatives on this issue.

      Constitutional Due Process is the “means” not the “ends”. Being a Constitutional-Conservative means that the “ends” are unpredictable. We arrive there by constitutional “means”. We don’t justify the “ends” by unconstitutional “means”. Real Conservatives are opposed to torture, warrantless spying, racial discrimination (14th Amendment) and other bigotry.

      Republican Ted Olson of the Bush Administration was maybe the only real Constitutional-Conservative in the Bush Administration on LGBT rights. Olson used constitutional “means” to reach that end result.

      As for the ACLU: Truman, Eisenhower and General MacArthur all supported the ACLU by the end of their careers. Ronald Reagan agreed with the ACLU’s position on torture and cruel treatment.

  5. But still a 5 to 4 is better than getting our Constitution and our Republic kicked in the ass time and time again and a reversal is even better.

    Next time some says but what can I do point out we independent centrists took control of the vote, put in our personal destroyer, enjoyed the leadership of he US Military, witnessed a huge amount new registrations and registrations that voted and voted knowing what they were voting for, and are reversing one by one much of the soviet dogma and goals of the left.

    Pelosi and Schumer don’t like being called out for what they are? Shouldn’t have joined the Stalinists and Adolfists. Not to worry about them we’ve still got the Phantom Army and what do they have? Self igniting bronx cheers
    art uip of
    One more and those dreams of Recall and Term Limits on those sent to represent us at the federal congress can come true.and we can concentrate on winding down and minimizing the start up of the Socialists never ending war

    And as we are witnessing jettison the thieves who are taking the workling classes tax deduction and stealing it in the form of new local taxes and fees and the rest

    5 to 4 is much nicer but 6 to 3 even better and 7 to 2 better yet. and the same ration in the District Circuits as well.

    But it will take constant attention to adding more and more of our brothers and sisters in the military and former military and remember this is in retribution for the left stating we were the biggest danger their administration had to face. Do you write OER, SEERs and EERs? Imagine a phrase such as “Does not show a clear and cogent understanding of their Oath of Office as regards their duty to the Constitution.e ”

    Revolutions are illegal but counter revolutions are required when you think about it. especially in suipport of the regular and active military.

    Three Cheers for the Independent and Representative Constitutional Republic of The United States of America which includes red, white and blue. but not those who shame us by shaming themselves.


    “Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., applauded Friday’s Supreme Court ruling, authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, that requires the government to obtain a warrant before searching Americans’ historical location records:

    ““Today’s ruling strikes a blow against the creeping expansion of government intrusion into the most personal parts of Americans’ lives,” Wyden said. “The court’s recognition that digital devices can generate ‘near-perfect surveillance’ of a person’s private life is a validation of the vital protections against unreasonable search and seizure provided by our Constitution.

    “”I have argued for years that the sheer volume of information about every single American that is collected by our phones and computers requires a fundamental rethinking of the idea that giving your information to a company means the government can get it too. This ‘third-party doctrine’ is simply out of step with the way we live now. Today’s ruling is another welcome step toward undoing that principle.”

    “A news release from Wyden’s office said he “has led the fight for stronger protections for Americans’ rights against unchecked government access to their personal information, and to uphold Fourth Amendment protections.”

    “Wyden first introduced the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance Act in 2011 to require warrants any time the government accesses Americans’ electronic geolocation information, and set out clear rules for when law-enforcement, businesses and individuals can access use and sell that data.”


    “Jake Laperruque, senior counsel at the Project on Government Oversight, said that the decision was a massive step forward, but expressed disappointment that the court did not address the possibility of real-time tracking.

    ““[By] refusing to make this obvious extension of its ruling, the Court [has] prolonged this fight for years, and it left us unprotected from extremely invasive tools like stingrays that should clearly require a warrant,” Laperruque told The Intercept in an email.

    “The ACLU hailed the decision, saying it would open the door to updating privacy law for a range of technologies. “This is a groundbreaking victory for Americans’ privacy rights in the digital age,” ACLU attorney Nathan Wessler, who argued the case in November, said in a statement. “The Supreme Court has given privacy law an update that it has badly needed for many years, finally bringing it in line with the realities of modern life. The government can no longer claim that the mere act of using technology eliminates the Fourth Amendment’s protections.”

  8. Bench warrent? How about an artificially intelligent bench to provide warrents 24/7?

  9. Ya gots ta start with something, a warrant. Then decide if it was issued with due care and attention to these or those rights. There will always be abuses on the part of cops, prosecutors, judges, etc. However, there are precious rights left enforced unless after the fact/killing or through expensive litigation, so convince a judge and then something, not everything, has been done right.

    1. Sort of half assed don’t you think. Why accept half assed when simply supporting our Constitution wil get you the whole way. Unless of course it’s a thinly veiled way of saying ‘it’s ok to be half assed Johnny. Here’s a social promotion and a trophy for everyone. the fore fathers took a big chance and changed the world by not accepting half assed so why accept it just to keep some weepiong willow apologizer happy?

      Starting somewhere does not imply accepting failure at the beginning of the effort.

  10. Huh. And here I was being told this sort of thing would be toast under Dictator Trump (and no, I’m not implying he was involved. Neither was our last POTUS). Almost makes one think that’s all a bunch of hysterical nonsense, huh? Good for them, I hope they go after the likes of Google, next.

  11. Whoa! Chief Roberts sides with the libs? What the hell happened to sometimes left-leaning Kennedy? Maybe he’s not leaving after all? Oh boy.

    Of course the police in this case should have gotten a warrant to search Carpenter’s phone lacking exigent circumstances – duh.

    Now if only the Supreme’s would put the breaks on the corrupt FBI and NSA for doing the same exact thing. Not.

Comments are closed.