There are 396 million cell phone service accounts in the United States—for a Nation of 326 million people. Cell phones perform their wide and growing variety of functions by connecting to a set of radio antennas called “cell sites.” Although cell sites are usually mounted on a tower, they can also be found on light posts, flagpoles, church steeples, or the sides of buildings. Cell sites typically have several directional antennas that divide the covered area into sectors.
Cell phones continuously scan their environment looking for the best signal, which generally comes from the closest cell site. Most modern devices, such as smartphones, tap into the wireless network several times a minute whenever their signal is on, even if the owner is not using one of the phone’s features. Each time the phone connects to a cell site, it generates a time-stamped record known as cell-site location information (CSLI). The precision of this information depends on the size of the geographic area covered by the cell site. The greater the concentration of cell sites, the smaller the coverage area. As data usage from cell phones has increased, wireless carriers have installed more cell sites to handle the traffic. That has led to increasingly compact coverage areas, especially in urban areas.
In April 2011, police arrested four men in connection with a series of armed robberies. One of the men confessed to the crimes and gave the FBI his cell phone number and the numbers of the other participants. The FBI used this information to apply for three orders from magistrate judges to obtain “transactional records” for each of the phone numbers, which the judges granted under the Stored Communications Act, 18 U.S.C. 2703(d). That Act provides that the government may require the disclosure of certain telecommunications records when “specific and articulable facts show that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the contents of a wire or electronic communication, or the records or other information sought, are relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation.” The transactional records obtained by the government include the date and time of calls, and the approximate location where calls began and ended based on their connections to cell towers—”cell site” location information (CSLI).
Based on the cell-site evidence, the government charged Timothy Carpenter with, among other offenses, aiding and abetting robbery that affected interstate commerce, in violation of the Hobbs Act, 18 U.S.C. 1951. Carpenter moved to suppress the government’s cell-site evidence on Fourth Amendment grounds, arguing that the FBI needed a warrant based on probable cause to obtain the records. The district court denied the motion to suppress, and the Sixth Circuit affirmed.
The government’s warrantless acquisition of Carpenter’s cell-site records violated his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures. Chief Justice John Roberts authored the opinion for the 5-4 majority.
The majority acknowledged that the Fourth Amendment protects not only property interests, but also reasonable expectations of privacy. The Court declined to extend the “third-party doctrine”—a doctrine where information disclosed to a third party carries no reasonable expectation of privacy—to cell-site location information, which implicates even greater privacy concerns than GPS tracking does.
Full Opinion here: https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/585/16-402/#tab-opinion-3919270
Carpenter v. United States, 585 U.S. _ (2018)
Anton Vialtsin, Esq.
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