Supreme Court decides against warrantless location searches in a major privacy decision


In a major decision on privacy in the digital age, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 ruling today that police must obtain a warrant to obtain cellphone location records.

The case, Carpenter v. United States, centered on whether there was a reasonable expectation of privacy when location records were held by a third party, and was closely watched for its Fourth Amendment implications.

“Given the unique nature of cell phone location records, the fact that the information is held by a third party does not by itself overcome the user’s claim to Fourth Amendment protection,” the opinion reads. Location information obtained by police is generally considered a search, and law enforcement should have to reach a probable cause standard to obtain those records, the court ruled.

The court said in its majority opinion that the decision was a narrow one, and that it would not extend its decision to matters involving “conventional” surveillance tools like cameras, but the ruling still noted the “seismic shifts” in technology that have changed our conceptions of privacy. “Sprint Corporation and its competitors are not your typical witnesses,” the majority opinion reads. “Unlike the nosy neighbor who keeps an eye on comings and goings, they are ever alert, and their memory is nearly infallible.”

High-profile tech companies, including Apple, Google, and Facebook, wrote in support of Fourth Amendment privacy protections in a filing to the court last year. Timothy Carpenter, who was convicted of robbery charges after police tracked his phone records, was represented by the ACLU in the case.