The US Supreme Court in a significant privacy rights case in Carpenter v. U.S., decided on June 22, 2018, reversed a the lower court decisions allowing for Cell Site Location Information (“CSLI”) to be used to obtain a conviction without a proper application of warrant.

Carpenter was convicted of armed robbery and weapons’ charges as the investigators were able to map his whereabouts for a 27 days period with 107 data points or location tracker per day through the CSLI data collected by his cell phone carrier.

The government had only to show a “reasonable grounds” for believing that the records were “relevant and material to an ongoing investigation” to obtain the entire location tracker which was tantamount to a GPS locator.

With this data, the government was able to establish sufficient circumstantial evidence to get a conviction placing Carpenter at the location of robberies, and at the time of the robbery had taken place and in multiple robberies.

The U.S. Supreme court raised the bar for obtaining such precise tracking information from “reasonable grounds” that information was material to “probable cause” that a crime had occurred, a significant leap and also the very requirement for obtaining a valid search warrant.

The ruling would significantly hinder the State’s power to track its citizens for little or no legal justification while fortifying and defining the value and meaning of the 4th Amendment in the digital age.

The impetus partly for ruling on the side of privacy rights v. the governmental interests was the shear volume of data collected by the cell phone carriers. In the Carpenter case, the carrier had revealed some 12,899 data points for Carpenter during a 27 days period.

Cell phone carriers generally collect data point for up to five years which means that the State with little or meager legal justification could track one’s movement without judicial oversight and only by applying administratively through the carrier for the entire five year period.

This no longer would be the case after the Supreme Court ruling. Tracking and surveillance of the individual’s movement would be only allowed through the application of warrant and through the court system.

The Supreme Court cemented that:

The Fourth Amendment protects “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” The “basic purpose of this Amendment,” our cases have recognized, “is to safeguard the privacy and security of individuals against arbitrary invasions by governmental officials.

When an individual “seeks to preserve something as private,” and his expectation of privacy is “one that society is prepared to recognize as reasonable,” we have held that official intrusion into that private sphere generally qualifies as a search and requires a warrant supported by probable cause…

The Court did not however address and seems to leave open for interpretation the application of facial recognition software. The surveillance and monitoring cameras are not as prevalent as the cell phone towers and the CLSI today, but in the very near future, an individual can be tracked by the facial recognition software and his/her location and disposition revealed even faster than with the CSLI.

Would the law enforcement need a search warrant to track an individual through the facial recognition software? To be determined…

The Supreme Court in this case however proved its loyalty to the letter of the 4th Amendment for now and sided with retaining a modicum of privacy in this era where technology is determined to erode and ebb away from the privacy rights.

Refer to our Washington DC Criminal Lawyer page for more information on this topic.

Categories: Criminal Defense.