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Smartphones and the Fourth Amendment: 'Most Important Privacy Case in a Generation'

The Case of Carpenter v. United States

woman with smartphone.jpg

If she's not thinking about privacy, she probably should be.

We wait with bated breath the next term of the U.S. Supreme Court, in which the Justices will hear what Motherboard calls "the most important privacy case in a generation." It's a case involving smartphones, of course, and the question is how far the government can snoop in a criminal investigation (as it usually is in cases involving the Fourth Amendment).

The Fourth Amendment

Let's begin with a brief refresher on the Fourth:

  • The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Smartphone Theft Mastermind

The federal government has accused Timothy Carpenter of masterminding a number of armed robberies ("ironically, stealing new smartphones," as Amy Howe points out for SCOTUSblog).

In the lower courts, Carpenter argued that the government failed to get a warrant for the search of cellphone records; as such, evidence obtained from the search was invalid. For its part, the government claimed authority to access cellphone records under the Stored Communications Act.

So far, the courts have not ruled in Carpenter's favor.

Cell Tower Records Show When and Where You've Been

As Howe reports, the lower court said, "Carpenter would have no reason to believe that his cellphone records would be kept private [...] because the records simply show where his phone connected with cell towers, without providing any information about the content of his calls."

Of course, since the records do show where Carpenter's phone connected with various cell towers, that presumably made the government's case, since it could pin when and where Carpenter was at the time of the armed robberies.

The government apparently believes that the Stored Communications Act allows it access to cellphone records without a warrant, based on earlier legal opinions from the 1970s - when the iPhone was merely a twinkle in Steve Jobs' eye - that allowed evidence from business records without a warrant.

We'll wait to see whether the Supreme Court agrees.

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