Do police officers need a warrant to view a suspect’s cellphone records kept by wireless carriers? This issue is up for debate on Monday, when the Supreme Court hears Carpenter v. United States.
Convicted of committing nine armed robberies of Radio Shack and T-Mobile stores in Michigan and Ohio between December 2010 and March 2011, Timothy Carpenter and Timothy Sanders are saying that the government’s collection of business records obtained from the defendants’ wireless carriers violated their Fourth Amendment rights to protection from unreasonable search and seizure.
The records showed that both men used their cellphones in the vicinity of several robberies during the times they took place.
The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed with the men, affirming the lower court ruling, which sentenced Carpenter to 1,395 months in prison and Sanders to 170 months in prison.
Thanks to technological advances, law enforcement agencies have been able to construct evidence based on historical data obtained from wireless carriers to determine if a suspect was in the vicinity of a crime scene or track a suspect in real-time. Wireless carriers, including Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint receive tens of thousands of requests every year from police investigators seeking “cell site location information,” otherwise known as CSLI.
At issue is whether or not companies are supposed to protect the privacy rights of their customers.
According to civil liberties lawyers, police need “probable cause” in the form of a search warrant to make sure people are not subjected to constitutionally unreasonable searches.
However, the lower courts ruled that a provision of a federal law called the Stored Communications Act means that the government does not need probable cause to obtain cellphone records. So long as prosecutors show “reasonable grounds” for the records and prove that they are “relevant and material” to an investigation, the searches are permitted.
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