SCOTUS grants cert in important Fourth Amendment data tracking case – II

On Behalf of | Jun 21, 2017 | Criminal Defense |

Last week, we began discussing how the Supreme Court of the United States recently granted a petition for a writ of certiorari in Carpenter v. United States, a case that could have major implications for Fourth Amendment jurisprudence.

Having established the facts of the case, today’s post will continue our discussion, focusing on the “third-party doctrine” heretofore relied upon by federal appellate courts in these types of cases, the issues before SCOTUS in Carpenter, and the reasons why the case itself is so important.

The third-party doctrine

To recap, the defendant, Carpenter, attempted to suppress the cellphone data showing his movements over time (i.e., his historical cell-site records) used by law enforcement, arguing they were secured in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

This attempt proved unsuccessful, while an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit met with similar results. The court held it was bound by what is known as the third-party doctrine, which is read as dictating that no warrant is required to secure historical cell-site records.

This third-party doctrine was established by SCOTUS all the way back in 1979 in Smith v. Maryland. Here, the high court ruled that a robbery suspect who made phone calls from his home phone had no reasonable expectation that his right to privacy included the numbers dialed. The reason? He had voluntarily turned over this information to a third party, meaning the phone company.

According to experts, the decision ultimately reached in Carpenter will determine whether this longstanding precedent will remain unchanged, be amended for 21st century purposes or perhaps even abandoned altogether.

The issues

According to legal experts, the issues before SCOTUS will essentially boil down to whether the collection of historical cell-site records by law enforcement officials constitutes a search for the purposes of the Fourth Amendment and, if so, whether a warrant is required.  

As we stated above, any such determination will include an analysis of both the third-party doctrine established in Smith, as well as the Stored Communications Act.

Going forward

While the case revolves around historical cell-site records, experts indicate that the decision reached by SCOTUS will have far more significant implications, dictating how the Fourth Amendment applies to everything from visual surveillance to credit card records.

Although it’s very difficult to determine how the court will rule in the next term, it’s worth noting that SCOTUS has decided two important cases in recent years examining new technology and the Fourth Amendment — both times siding against law enforcement.

In 2012, it ruled that a warrant must be secured before placing a GPS tracking device on a vehicle and, in 2014, it ruled a warrant must be secured prior to searching a cellphone confiscated during an arrest.

Stay tuned for updates …

If you have been arrested for any federal crime or major state offense, consider speaking with an experienced legal professional as soon as possible as the stakes are simply too high. 


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