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Supreme Court Upholds Privacy Rights for Cell Phone Location


We are all occasionally guilty of relying too much on our cell phones.  But what if the government could rely on our cell phones too? Is Big Brother really always watching?  When investigating suspects, police officers look for whatever evidence they can find to decide whether the suspect is innocent or guilty.  Cell phone location data is very helpful to determine whether a suspect was at the scene of a crime when it took place.  You have a right to keep your daily locations and movements private.  But what about when your location data is collected by wireless carriers?  Does the fact that a third party has this information waive your right to privacy?

In Carpenter v. United States, the Supreme Court protected the privacy of cell phone users’ location data.  Timothy Carpenter was a suspect in some armed robberies.  After finding Carpenter’s cell phone number, the prosecutor was granted a court order to obtain his cell phone data.  Because it was a court order and not a warrant, the prosecutor did not have to show probable cause to obtain the data.  He was charged and convicted of robbery after the prosecutor used the cell phone data to show that Carpenter was at the exact location of the robberies when the robberies were taking place. 

Carpenter argued that he had a reasonable expectation of privacy concerning his cell phone location data, and thus the prosecutor needed a warrant to access that information.  However, both the District Court and the Court of Appeals ruled that no such expectation existed because Carpenter had voluntarily given that information to his wireless carrier by using his cell phone.  The Supreme Court took a stand against government intrusion in the age of technology.

The Court first compared cell phone location data tracking to GPS tracking.  Much like GPS tracking, cell phone location data is very detailed and easy to acquire.  The Court also considered whether continuously giving a wireless carrier your location is enough to destroy a reasonable expectation of privacy.  They decided that because it is such a comprehensive record of a person’s location, this voluntary giving of information does not by itself waive a person’s expectation of privacy.  Thus, the government still needs probable cause to obtain a warrant to access cell phone location data.  The Court did, however, carve out some exceptions for emergencies such as active shootings, bomb threats, and child abductions.

What does this mean for you?  You can rest a little easier carrying your phone around with you.  The government cannot use your cell phone to track your movements unless they have probable cause.  You still have a right to privacy, even in this digital age.  However, you should still take as many precautions as possible to protect your privacy rights.

If you believe that you have put yourself in a situation that could possibly threaten your right to privacy, you may need a criminal defense attorney.  Having someone who is experienced represent you can make a huge difference in your case.  If you need a criminal defense attorney, contact Ingram Law LLC at (205) 335-2640.

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