Ellen Levis, MJLST Staffer
In late 2010, there was a robbery at a Radio Shack in Detroit. A few days later: a stick up at a T-Mobile store. A few more months, a few more robberies – until law enforcement noticed a pattern and eventually, in April 2011, the FBI arrested four men under suspicion of violating the Hobbs Act (that is, committing robberies that affect interstate commerce.)
One of the men confessed to the crimes and gave the FBI his cell phone number and the numbers of the other participants. The FBI used this information to obtain “transactional records” for each of the phone numbers, which magistrate judges granted under the Stored Communications Act. Based on this “cell-site evidence,” the government charged Timothy Carpenter with a slew of offenses. At trial, Carpenter moved to suppress the government’s cell-site evidence, which included 127 days of GPS tracking and placed his phone at 12,898 locations. The district court denied the motion to suppress; Carpenter was convicted and sentenced to 116 years in prison. The Sixth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision when Carpenter appealed.
In November 2017, the Supreme Court heard what might be the most important privacy case of this generation. Carpenter v. United States asks the Supreme Court to consider whether the government, without a warrant, can track a person’s movement via geo-locational data beamed out by cell phone.
Whatever they ultimately decide, the Justices seemed to present a uniquely united front in their questioning at oral arguments, with both Sonia Sotomayor and Neil Gorsuch hinting that warrantless cell-site evidence searches are incompatible with the protections promised by the Fourth Amendment.
In United States v Jones, 132 S.Ct. 945 (2012), Sotomayor wrote a prescient concurring analysis of the challenge facing the Court as it attempts to translate the Fourth Amendment into the digital age. Sotomayor expressed doubt that “people would accept without complaint the warrantless disclosure to the Government of a list of every Web site they had visited in the last week, or month, or year.” And further, she “would not assume that all information voluntarily disclosed to some member of the public for a limited purpose is, for that reason alone, disentitled to Fourth Amendment protection.”
In the Carpenter oral argument, Sotomayor elaborated on the claims she made in United States v Jones 132 S.Ct. 945 (2012). Similarly, throughout the Carpenter argument, Sotomayor gave concrete examples of how extensively Americans use their cellphones and how invasive cell phone tracking could become. “I know that most young people have the phones in the bed with them. . . I know people who take phones into public restrooms. They take them with them everywhere. It’s an appendage now for some people . . .Why is it okay to use the signals that phone is using from that person’s bedroom, made accessible to law enforcement without probable cause?”
Gorsuch, on the other hand, drilled down on a property-rights theory of the Fourth Amendment, questioning whether a person had a property interest in the data they created. He stated, “it seems like [the] whole argument boils down to — if we get it from a third party we’re okay, regardless of property interest, regardless of anything else.” And he continued, “John Adams said one of the reasons for the war was the use by the government of third parties to obtain information forced them to help as their snitches and snoops. Why isn’t this argument exactly what the framers were concerned about?”