by John Lovell
Last month, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of the privacy rights of individuals. The Government, without a warrant or a showing of probable cause, issued an order to a cell phone company to provide Timothy Carpenter’s cell site data. The Government sought to gather the extensive records, including the location of Carpenter’s phones. The Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, found that Mr. Carpenter had a privacy right in his phone records. For the Government to seize these records, the Government needed to present to a magistrate a warrant based on sworn testimony establishing probable cause. The Court noted that a significant factor causing the War for Independence was Britain’s use of warrantless searches … Americans have never been fond of warrantless searches!
Do not be quick to conclude that this ruling makes it necessary for the police to obtain a warrant for all types of stored records. Previously, the Court has held that a warrant is not necessary to obtain records of the numbers called by a cell phone-not the content of the calls but just the fact that the “target” phone called particular numbers at particular times. The Court has also held that other stored records such as bank records may be obtained without a warrant. A couple of years ago, the Court ruled that a warrant is required to place a GPS tracking device on a vehicle. The critical distinction that the Court has made is in information that reveals the location of the subject. We have a greater expectation of privacy in where we are than is more typical records such as numbers called and even bank records.