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Is SCOTUS going to reach new ground in Fourth Amendment cellphone data case?

Two years, ago the Supreme Court of the United States handed down a groundbreaking decision in Riley v. California, holding that law enforcement officials must secure a warrant prior to undertaking a search of a cellphone seized during an arrest.

SCOTUS is now poised to decide another important case examining the complex interplay of privacy rights in the modern digital era and the Fourth Amendment. Indeed, it officially granted a petition for a writ of certiorari last Monday in Carpenter v. U.S.

What are the facts of the case?

The defendant, Carpenter, was convicted on six counts for his role in a string of armed store robberies in Michigan and Ohio. Here, law enforcement relied on "cell site location information" -- or CSLI -- linking him to the criminal activity.

At trial, Carpenter's attempt to suppress the CSLI on the grounds it was secured in violation of the Fourth Amendment was defeated. An appeal to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit was similarly defeated.

What exactly is cell site location information?

These are essentially records kept by wireless carriers showing the cellular towers to which customers' phones connect. These records, in turn, can be used by law enforcement to determine whether a suspect was at or near the site of criminal activity.

What is the issue before SCOTUS?

Carpenter's attorneys are arguing that the sensitive nature of CSLI, which can reveal significant details about a person's private life, merits Fourth Amendment protection. As such, law enforcement officials should be required to show probable cause (i.e., secure a warrant) before gaining access to it.

For its part, the Justice Department is arguing that the Stored Communications Act, a federal law passed back in 1986, says that prosecutors need only demonstrate "reasonable suspicion" as opposed to probable cause in order to secure CSLI information. Furthermore, they argue that the third-party doctrine articulated by SCOTUS in Smith v. Maryland supports such a conclusion.

What is the third-party doctrine?

In the 1979 case of Smith v. Maryland, SCOTUS dictated that the defendant robbery suspect could not reasonably expect that his right to privacy covered numbers dialed on his home phone given that he voluntarily turned this information over to the phone company, a third party.

This third party doctrine has been routinely cited by federal appeals courts, including the 6th Circuit in Carpenter, in holding that law enforcement does not need a warrant to secure data from wireless carriers.

When can we expect a decision?

Not for some time, as SCOTUS won't hear oral arguments in the case and reach a decision until its next term, which commences in October 2017 and finishes in June 2018.

If you are under investigation or have been charged with any manner of federal offense -- whether related to drugs, weapons, finances or violence -- consider speaking with an experienced legal professional as soon as possible. 

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