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Supreme Court: Warrant generally need to track location with cell data

With much of Chicago and national media busy covering political news in a tumultuous time, some important stories get overlooked or are given short shrift. Let’s rewind the clock a few days and take a look at the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on privacy rights.

Late last week, the court that law enforcement will generally need to get a search warrant before it can track a person with cell phone records over an extended period. The decision was widely hailed by privacy rights advocates as an important victory in the digital age.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion that cell phones play a "pervasive and insistent part of daily life." He added that virtually all activities on cell phones generate data that could be used by government to track citizens.

He noted that the available cell-tracking technology “risks Government encroachment of the sort the Framers after consulting the lessons of history, drafted the Fourth Amendment to prevent."

The 5-4 opinion in Carpenter v. United States was limited to cell-site location data. The Justice Department had argued that people who use cells have diminished privacy rights because they voluntarily shared their phone data with a third party.

One analyst said the Carpenter ruling "could portend a revolution in how courts understand and enforce privacy rights in the digital age." It’s possible – perhaps even likely – that future privacy decisions will lean on this decision in a case that involved a man arrested for involvement in a series of armed robberies.

A man who confessed to the robberies gave the FBI his own cell number and the cell numbers of others alleged to be involved. The FBI then obtained the locations of Timothy Carpenter; the obtained cell data indicated he had been near the robberies.

His lawyers argued that the cell-site evidence should be suppressed because the Fourth Amendment required the government to first obtain a search warrant after showing a judge that it had probable cause.

Those who believe that the government has ignored privacy rights in an investigation should contact a criminal defense attorney experienced in protecting rights and freedom at every step of the legal process. Contact The Law Offices of Darryl A. Goldberg for more information.

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