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Can police use cellphone data to determine your location? SCOTUS to decide

The Supreme Court will hear a case questioning whether or not police need a warrant to search the location of an individual based on cellphone information.

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) has agreed to hear a case that questions whether or not the police can gather cellphone data that reveals the “location and movements of a cellphone user” without a warrant. In this case, Carpenter v. United States, the police gathered such data for 127 days and used the information to support charges that the cellphone user was involved in a series of robberies.

Take a step back: What is the real issue in this case?

Our country has a few fundamental rights, one of which is the right to privacy. This case questions that right, guaranteed under the Fourth Amendment, to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures. This right applies even when the government is attempting to build a case against someone charged of a crime. The accused has protections that are designed to help ensure that their basic rights are not violated.

In this case, the government argues that it does not need a warrant to gather the historical cellphone location data of a cellphone user. Instead, it states that the Stored Communications Act (SCA) allows for the collection of such data. This is an important distinction, as a warrant would require the police have information to support the need for this type of a search while the SCA has a much lower threshold that must be met before it would allow police to gather such information. The SCA only requires reasonable grounds to support the belief that these records would be relevant to an ongoing investigation.

Reviewing precedent: What will SCOTUS decide?

Previous holdings in other cases often play a role in future decisions. In this case, two cases from the 1970s will likely be discussed. These cases held that gathering business records is not a search as defined by the Fourth Amendment. As such, these protections would not apply. However, SCOTUS also ruled in Riley v. California in 2014 that police must get a warrant to search digital information on cellphones gathered from those who are arrested.

The holding in Riley was a step away from the previous holdings of the 1970s. This departure was supported by the fact that cellphones have technology that was “inconceivable” during the 70s. The court further clarified that the information on cellphones could still be subject to a search, but such a search would generally require a warrant. This could show that the court is prepared to provide more privacy protections to cell-phone users.

What does this mean for those charged with crimes?

Those who are facing criminal charges should note the importance of privacy protections. Without these protections, evidence from seemingly private sources could be gathered and used to support the case against you. In these situations, it is wise to seek legal counsel. An experienced attorney can build a defense that includes these protections, better ensuring your rights are protected.

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