Privacy advocates are celebrating a Supreme Court ruling that bans law enforcement from tracking a user’s cellphone location without first obtaining a warranty. In a majority 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court found that allowing police officers to access a cellphones location data without a warrant violated the Fourth Amendment, and that it is precisely the type of surveillance that the Constitution protects against.
Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the majority decision, likened warrantless cellphone tracking to wearing an electronic ankle bracelet, such as those worn by criminals on house arrest. The Supreme Court ultimately felt that US citizens should be protected from that type of monitoring unless police can convince a judge of probable cause of a crime, in which case the judge would issue a warrant to track the location of a person through their phone data.
It was a narrow decision, not just in the 5-4 majority vote, but also the ruling’s scope. There remain instances where police can track a user through cellphone location data without a warrant. In cases of emergency it is still allowed, and the same goes for the purposes of national security. The ruling also doesn’t change other precedents, like financial and banking information.
The case dates back to armed robberies that occurred as far back as 2010. Police arrested some of the suspects in the robbery, who coughed up the name of the group’s leader, Timothy Carpenter. Subsequently, law enforcement officials received a court order to access more than four months of cellphone tracking records for Carpenter and others involved in the robberies.
Carpenter’s location information implicated him in the robberies, and helped to get him convicted. However, he appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that his Constitutional rights required that police have a warrant in order to access his cell tower location data from his wireless provider. The police didn’t do that, instead getting an easier-to-obtain court order under the federal Stored Communications Act.
Going forward, it will be a little more difficult for police to catch criminals in similar fashion. Even so, Roberts noted that of the 326 million people living in the US, there are 396 million cellphone accounts. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) further noted that having to generally obtain a warrant offers the public protection against unjustified government surveillance.
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