Court Prohibits Warrantless Access to Cell Records Used to Track Suspect’s Location

August 22, 2018
Co-authored by Joe Malone

Is your cell phone on?  It is leaving your digital footprints wherever you go.

Every time your cell phone connects to a nearby cell tower, your cell phone service provider records the time and site of the connection, which gives your rough location. Cell phone companies collect and store this location data. Law enforcement officers have subpoenaed this data to assist with investigations. A recent United States Supreme Court case, Carpenter v. United States, analyzed whether people have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their day-to-day location which would require protection of these records under the Fourth Amendment.

In Carpenter, the Court held that to obtain a week’s worth of cell site location information from cellular service providers to determine the locations of a suspect, law enforcement officers needed a warrant supported by probable cause.  In that case, the government subpoenaed cell phone location data that tracked a suspect’s movements, which placed him near the scene of several robberies. The Court explained that Fourth Amendment protections apply to cell site location records because such records essentially turn people’s phones into “ankle monitors” that can track movements constantly over long periods of time.

Keep in mind that every situation may involve nuanced differences. For example, this case expressly does not address whether cell site location information obtained in real-time requires a warrant.  In order to properly analyze a situation you may be confronted with, talk to a criminal defense attorney at Axley.