Consumer Tech

Supreme Court to decide if police need warrants to get your cell location

AUSTIN (KXAN) -- The United States Supreme Court has agreed to consider whether police need search warrants to review cellphone tower records to help track possible suspects.

Timothy Ivory Carpenter was sentenced to more than 100 years in jail in 2014 after prosecutors said he was involved in organizing several armed robberies around Detroit, Mich. Prosecutors argued they knew he was involved based on where cell towers picked up his cellphone. The ACLU argued those cellphone records should not have been allowed in court. Police did not obtain warrants based on probable cause but instead requested the records under the Stored Communications Act.

The case has been appealed to the highest court in the land and will be heard in their next term, this October. The court will decide whether police should have to demonstrate good reason or probable cause to get access to phone records.

Civil liberties groups will watch the court's decision on third party doctrine as they take up the case.

"The results of this case will either be big or huge," said Josh Cohn from the Electronic Frontier Foundation of Austin.

Under the 4th Amendment, Americans have a reasonable right to privacy and against searches and seizures. But Cohn says the doctrine needs a digital age update. He says most people don't know how much information could be used against someone in court.

"Think about other third parties. If I send you an email, it doesn't go from me to you. It goes from me, to Google, to you," said Cohn. "Nobody is saying there's going to be less information out there. We're going to know more specific information. We're going to know more about everything you do, heat maps, where you're living, who you're calling, everything. And we're going to have it really really quickly."

The third party doctrine at the heart of this case holds that information voluntarily given to businesses, like a phone company or a bank, is not private. But the Supreme Court has a mixed record on cases like this. In 1979, the Court held firm to the third party doctrine in the Smith vs. Maryland case.

Justices took a different approach in the 2014 Riley vs. California case. All nine justices decided that because cellphones are such a huge part of everyday life, the information on a phone should be protected.


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