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SCOTUS grants cert in important Fourth Amendment data tracking case

With all of the excitement on Capitol Hill last week owing to the testimony of former FBI director James Comey before a Senate Panel, it's possible that many people overlooked a decision by the Supreme Court of the United States to review an important case during their next term -- one that could have major implications for Fourth Amendment jurisprudence.

Specifically, the court granted a petition for a writ of certiorari last Monday in Carpenter v. United States, a case examining government access to historical cell-site records, meaning the data held by cellphone companies showing users' movements over time.

The case

Carpenter revolves around several armed robberies of cellphone stores over a two-year period. Here, the defendant, the purported mastermind of the robbery conspiracy, would supply weapons, indicate when each robbery was to commence and serve as a lookout.

When one of the armed robbers was apprehended, he confessed and supplied the names and cellphone numbers of the other participants in the robberies. From there, federal prosecutors secured three court orders enabling them to access the historical cell-site records of the alleged robbery suspects, including the defendant.

Here, the prosecutors were acting in compliance with the Stored Communications Act, a 1986 federal law dictating that the standard for securing historical cell-site records is not probable cause, but rather "reasonable grounds to believe" that the information is "relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation."

In other words, no search warrant is required.

The historical cell-site records were ultimately secured and showed that the defendant's cellphone was communicating with cellular towers situated in close proximity to the site of four robberies over a five-month period.

The defendant unsuccessfully attempted to suppress the historical cell-site records at trial on the grounds they were secured in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

An appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit proved equally unsuccessful, with the court ruling it was bound by what is known as the third-party doctrine.

We'll continue discussing this important case in our next post, examining the third-party doctrine, the issues before SCOTUS and the reasons why the case is so important.

Consider speaking with a skilled legal professional as soon as possible if you have been arrested for any federal crime or major state offense, as your freedom and your future are at stake. 

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