Supreme Court: Warrant Usually Required For Cell Tower Records to Track a Person’s Movements

by Snell & Wilmer
Contact

On June 22, 2018, the United States Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that the government generally needs a search warrant to track a person’s location through cell phone location records.  The opinion, in Carpenter v. United States was written by Chief Justice John Roberts, who sided with the four most liberal justices on the high court. Four conservative justices (Kennedy, Thomas, Alito and Gorsuch) each wrote dissenting opinions, some of which were joined by others.  This opinion reversed the Sixth Circuit’s ruling that upheld the government’s warrantless collection over more than 4 months’ of historical cell phone location records that were used to convict Carpenter of six robberies.

The majority opinion is the latest in a trend at the court to address privacy rights in the digital era and to clarify prior court rulings dealing with data held by third parties.  Tech companies, privacy advocates, journalists and others submitted briefs urging the court to reach this result.

Acquiring Cell Tower Records to Track Past Movements is a Fourth Amendment Search Requiring a Search Warrant

The ruling is notable in several respects. It found that the government’s acquisition of cell-site records that were used to track the defendant’s location over a period of time constituted a Fourth Amendment search, and thus required probable cause to obtain a search warrant.

Americans Have a Reasonable Expectation of Privacy Regarding Their Location and Movements

The court noted that “the digital data at issue was at an intersection between two lines of cases.”  The first line of cases deals with a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy as to their location and their movements (which was addressed in a 2012 Supreme Court decision, United States v. Jones, in which the court held that Fourth Amendment requirements on searches and seizures bar law enforcement from placing a GPS system on a vehicle to keep track of its location without a warrant.)

In Carpenter, the Chief Justice wrote, “[a]majority of the court has already recognized that individuals have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the whole of their physical movements.  Allowing government access to cell-site records — which ‘hold for many Americans the ‘privacies of life,” — contravenes that expectation.”

No Expansion of the “Third-Party Doctrine” Limiting Privacy Expectations Regarding Information Voluntarily Shared

The other line of cases, decided decades ago, deals with a person’s diminished expectation of privacy regarding information they voluntarily share with third parties, such as financial records held by a bank, or dialed telephone numbers conveyed to phone companies.  Years ago the Supreme Court ruled that such records can be obtained without a search warrant; this concept, called the “third party doctrine”, has been used limit privacy expectations regarding certain kinds of information that a person voluntarily gives to a third party.

Limited Application of this Narrow Decision

Notably, the opinion expressly states that it is limited to the facts of this case.  It “does not call into question conventional surveillance techniques and tools, such as security cameras; does not address other business records that might incidentally reveal location information; and does not consider other collection techniques involving foreign affairs or national security.”

Moreover, the court noted that there are the usual exceptions to the need for a warrant, including pursuing suspects or protecting people threatened with imminent harm. This opinion focuses on the collection of historical cell-site records to re-create a person’s location over a period of time in the past.

The syllabus of the opinion:

Cell phones perform their wide and growing variety of functions by continuously connecting to a set of radio antennas called “cell sites.” Each time a phone connects to a cell site, it generates a time-stamped record known as cell-site location information (CSLI). Wireless carriers collect and store this information for their own business purposes.  Here, after the FBI identified the cell phone numbers of several robbery suspects, prosecutors were granted court orders to obtain the suspects’ cell phone records under the Stored Communications Act.  Wireless carriers produced CSLI for petitioner Timothy Carpenter’s phone, and the Government was able to obtain 12,898 location points cataloging Carpenter’s movements over 127 days—an average of 101 data points per day. Carpenter moved to suppress the data, arguing that the Government’s seizure of the records without obtaining a warrant supported by probable cause violated the Fourth Amendment. The District Court denied the motion, and prosecutors used the records at trial to show that Carpenter’s phone was near four of the robbery locations at the time those robberies occurred. Carpenter was convicted. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, holding that Carpenter lacked a reasonable expectation of privacy in the location information collected by the FBI because he had shared that information with his wireless carriers. 

Held:

1.  The Government’s acquisition of Carpenter’s cell-site records was a Fourth Amendment search.

(a) The Fourth Amendment protects not only property interests but certain expectations of privacy as well. Katz v. United States, 389 U. S. 347, 351. Thus, when an individual “seeks to preserve something as private,” and his expectation of privacy is “one that society is prepared to recognize as reasonable,” official intrusion into that sphere generally qualifies as a search and requires a warrant supported by probable cause. Smith v. Maryland, 442 U. S. 735, 740 (internal quotation marks and alterations omitted). The analysis regarding which expectations of privacy are entitled to protection is informed by historical understandings “of what was deemed an unreasonable search and seizure when [the Fourth Amendment] was adopted.” Carroll v. United States, 267 U. S. 132, 149. These Founding-era understandings continue to inform this Court when applying the Fourth Amendment to innovations in surveillance tools. See, e.g., Kyllo v. United States, 533 U. S. 27.

(b) The digital data at issue—personal location information maintained by a third party—does not fit neatly under existing precedents but lies at the intersection of two lines of cases. One set addresses a person’s expectation of privacy in his physical location and movements. See, e.g., United States v. Jones, 565 U. S. 400 (five Justices concluding that privacy concerns would be raised by GPS tracking). The other addresses a person’s expectation of privacy in information voluntarily turned over to third parties. See United States v.Miller, 425 U. S. 435 (no expectation of privacy in financial records held by a bank), and Smith, 442 U. S. 735 (no expectation of privacy in records of dialed telephone numbers conveyed to telephone company).  

(c) Tracking a person’s past movements through CSLI partakes of many of the qualities of GPS monitoring considered in Jones—it is detailed, encyclopedic, and effortlessly compiled. At the same time, however, the fact that the individual continuously reveals his location to his wireless carrier implicates the third-party principle of Smith and Miller. Given the unique nature of cell-site records, this Court declines to extend Smith and Miller to cover them. 

(1) A majority of the Court has already recognized that individuals have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the whole of their physical movements. Allowing government access to cell-site records—which “hold for many Americans the ‘privacies of life,’ ” Riley v. California, 573 U. S. ___, ___—contravenes that expectation. In fact, historical cell-site records present even greater privacy concerns than the GPS monitoring considered in Jones: They give the Government near perfect surveillance and allow it to travel back in time to retrace a person’s whereabouts, subject only to the five-year retention policies of most wireless carriers. The Government contends that CSLI data is less precise than GPS information, but it thought the data accurate enough here to highlight it during closing argument in Carpenter’s trial. At any rate, the rule the Court adopts “must take account of more sophisticated systems that are already in use or in development,” Kyllo, 533 U. S., at 36, and the accuracy of CSLI is rapidly approaching GPS-level precision. 

(2) The Government contends that the third-party doctrine governs this case, because cell-site records, like the records in Smith and Miller, are “business records,” created and maintained by wireless carriers. But there is a world of difference between the limited types of personal information addressed in Smith and Miller and the exhaustive chronicle of location information casually collected by wireless carriers. The third-party doctrine partly stems from the notion that an individual has a reduced expectation of privacy in information knowingly shared with another. Smith and Miller, however, did not rely solely on the act of sharing. They also considered “the nature of the particular documents sought” and limitations on any “legitimate expectation of privacy’ concerning their contents.” Miller, 425 U. S., at 442. In mechanically applying the third-party doctrine to this case the Government fails to appreciate the lack of comparable limitations on the revealing nature of CSLI. Nor does the second rationale for the third-party doctrine—voluntary exposure—hold up when it comes to CSLI. Cell phone location information is not truly “shared” as the term is normally understood. First, cell phones and the services they provide are “such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life” that carrying one is indispensable to participation in modern society. Riley, 573 U. S., at ___.  Second, a cell phone logs a cell-site record by dint of its operation, without any affirmative act on the user’s part beyond powering up.

(d) This decision is narrow. It does not express a view on matters not before the Court; does not disturb the application of Smith and Miller or call into question conventional surveillance techniques and tools, such as security cameras; does not address other business records that might incidentally reveal location information; and does not consider other collection techniques involving foreign affairs or national security.

 2.  The Government did not obtain a warrant supported by probable cause before acquiring Carpenter’s cell-site records. It acquired those records pursuant to a court order under the Stored Communications Act, which required the Government to show “reasonable grounds” for believing that the records were “relevant and material to an ongoing investigation.” 18 U. S. C. §2703(d). That showing falls well short of the probable cause required for a warrant. Consequently, an order issued under §2703(d) is not a permissible mechanism for accessing historical cell-site records. Not all orders compelling the production of documents will require a showing of probable cause. A warrant is required only in the rare case where the suspect has a legitimate privacy interest in records held by a third party. And even though the Government will generally need a warrant to access CSLI, case-specific exceptions—e.g., exigent circumstances—may support a warrantless search.

Stay tuned for further developments in this interesting area of the law and technology.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

© Snell & Wilmer | Attorney Advertising

Written by:

Snell & Wilmer
Contact
more
less

Snell & Wilmer on:

Readers' Choice 2017
Reporters on Deadline

"My best business intelligence, in one easy email…"

Your first step to building a free, personalized, morning email brief covering pertinent authors and topics on JD Supra:
*By using the service, you signify your acceptance of JD Supra's Privacy Policy.
Custom Email Digest
- hide

JD Supra Privacy Policy

Updated: May 25, 2018:

JD Supra is a legal publishing service that connects experts and their content with broader audiences of professionals, journalists and associations.

This Privacy Policy describes how JD Supra, LLC ("JD Supra" or "we," "us," or "our") collects, uses and shares personal data collected from visitors to our website (located at www.jdsupra.com) (our "Website") who view only publicly-available content as well as subscribers to our services (such as our email digests or author tools)(our "Services"). By using our Website and registering for one of our Services, you are agreeing to the terms of this Privacy Policy.

Please note that if you subscribe to one of our Services, you can make choices about how we collect, use and share your information through our Privacy Center under the "My Account" dashboard (available if you are logged into your JD Supra account).

Collection of Information

Registration Information. When you register with JD Supra for our Website and Services, either as an author or as a subscriber, you will be asked to provide identifying information to create your JD Supra account ("Registration Data"), such as your:

  • Email
  • First Name
  • Last Name
  • Company Name
  • Company Industry
  • Title
  • Country

Other Information: We also collect other information you may voluntarily provide. This may include content you provide for publication. We may also receive your communications with others through our Website and Services (such as contacting an author through our Website) or communications directly with us (such as through email, feedback or other forms or social media). If you are a subscribed user, we will also collect your user preferences, such as the types of articles you would like to read.

Information from third parties (such as, from your employer or LinkedIn): We may also receive information about you from third party sources. For example, your employer may provide your information to us, such as in connection with an article submitted by your employer for publication. If you choose to use LinkedIn to subscribe to our Website and Services, we also collect information related to your LinkedIn account and profile.

Your interactions with our Website and Services: As is true of most websites, we gather certain information automatically. This information includes IP addresses, browser type, Internet service provider (ISP), referring/exit pages, operating system, date/time stamp and clickstream data. We use this information to analyze trends, to administer the Website and our Services, to improve the content and performance of our Website and Services, and to track users' movements around the site. We may also link this automatically-collected data to personal information, for example, to inform authors about who has read their articles. Some of this data is collected through information sent by your web browser. We also use cookies and other tracking technologies to collect this information. To learn more about cookies and other tracking technologies that JD Supra may use on our Website and Services please see our "Cookies Guide" page.

How do we use this information?

We use the information and data we collect principally in order to provide our Website and Services. More specifically, we may use your personal information to:

  • Operate our Website and Services and publish content;
  • Distribute content to you in accordance with your preferences as well as to provide other notifications to you (for example, updates about our policies and terms);
  • Measure readership and usage of the Website and Services;
  • Communicate with you regarding your questions and requests;
  • Authenticate users and to provide for the safety and security of our Website and Services;
  • Conduct research and similar activities to improve our Website and Services; and
  • Comply with our legal and regulatory responsibilities and to enforce our rights.

How is your information shared?

  • Content and other public information (such as an author profile) is shared on our Website and Services, including via email digests and social media feeds, and is accessible to the general public.
  • If you choose to use our Website and Services to communicate directly with a company or individual, such communication may be shared accordingly.
  • Readership information is provided to publishing law firms and authors of content to give them insight into their readership and to help them to improve their content.
  • Our Website may offer you the opportunity to share information through our Website, such as through Facebook's "Like" or Twitter's "Tweet" button. We offer this functionality to help generate interest in our Website and content and to permit you to recommend content to your contacts. You should be aware that sharing through such functionality may result in information being collected by the applicable social media network and possibly being made publicly available (for example, through a search engine). Any such information collection would be subject to such third party social media network's privacy policy.
  • Your information may also be shared to parties who support our business, such as professional advisors as well as web-hosting providers, analytics providers and other information technology providers.
  • Any court, governmental authority, law enforcement agency or other third party where we believe disclosure is necessary to comply with a legal or regulatory obligation, or otherwise to protect our rights, the rights of any third party or individuals' personal safety, or to detect, prevent, or otherwise address fraud, security or safety issues.
  • To our affiliated entities and in connection with the sale, assignment or other transfer of our company or our business.

How We Protect Your Information

JD Supra takes reasonable and appropriate precautions to insure that user information is protected from loss, misuse and unauthorized access, disclosure, alteration and destruction. We restrict access to user information to those individuals who reasonably need access to perform their job functions, such as our third party email service, customer service personnel and technical staff. You should keep in mind that no Internet transmission is ever 100% secure or error-free. Where you use log-in credentials (usernames, passwords) on our Website, please remember that it is your responsibility to safeguard them. If you believe that your log-in credentials have been compromised, please contact us at privacy@jdsupra.com.

Children's Information

Our Website and Services are not directed at children under the age of 16 and we do not knowingly collect personal information from children under the age of 16 through our Website and/or Services. If you have reason to believe that a child under the age of 16 has provided personal information to us, please contact us, and we will endeavor to delete that information from our databases.

Links to Other Websites

Our Website and Services may contain links to other websites. The operators of such other websites may collect information about you, including through cookies or other technologies. If you are using our Website or Services and click a link to another site, you will leave our Website and this Policy will not apply to your use of and activity on those other sites. We encourage you to read the legal notices posted on those sites, including their privacy policies. We are not responsible for the data collection and use practices of such other sites. This Policy applies solely to the information collected in connection with your use of our Website and Services and does not apply to any practices conducted offline or in connection with any other websites.

Information for EU and Swiss Residents

JD Supra's principal place of business is in the United States. By subscribing to our website, you expressly consent to your information being processed in the United States.

  • Our Legal Basis for Processing: Generally, we rely on our legitimate interests in order to process your personal information. For example, we rely on this legal ground if we use your personal information to manage your Registration Data and administer our relationship with you; to deliver our Website and Services; understand and improve our Website and Services; report reader analytics to our authors; to personalize your experience on our Website and Services; and where necessary to protect or defend our or another's rights or property, or to detect, prevent, or otherwise address fraud, security, safety or privacy issues. Please see Article 6(1)(f) of the E.U. General Data Protection Regulation ("GDPR") In addition, there may be other situations where other grounds for processing may exist, such as where processing is a result of legal requirements (GDPR Article 6(1)(c)) or for reasons of public interest (GDPR Article 6(1)(e)). Please see the "Your Rights" section of this Privacy Policy immediately below for more information about how you may request that we limit or refrain from processing your personal information.
  • Your Rights
    • Right of Access/Portability: You can ask to review details about the information we hold about you and how that information has been used and disclosed. Note that we may request to verify your identification before fulfilling your request. You can also request that your personal information is provided to you in a commonly used electronic format so that you can share it with other organizations.
    • Right to Correct Information: You may ask that we make corrections to any information we hold, if you believe such correction to be necessary.
    • Right to Restrict Our Processing or Erasure of Information: You also have the right in certain circumstances to ask us to restrict processing of your personal information or to erase your personal information. Where you have consented to our use of your personal information, you can withdraw your consent at any time.

You can make a request to exercise any of these rights by emailing us at privacy@jdsupra.com or by writing to us at:

Privacy Officer
JD Supra, LLC
10 Liberty Ship Way, Suite 300
Sausalito, California 94965

You can also manage your profile and subscriptions through our Privacy Center under the "My Account" dashboard.

We will make all practical efforts to respect your wishes. There may be times, however, where we are not able to fulfill your request, for example, if applicable law prohibits our compliance. Please note that JD Supra does not use "automatic decision making" or "profiling" as those terms are defined in the GDPR.

  • Timeframe for retaining your personal information: We will retain your personal information in a form that identifies you only for as long as it serves the purpose(s) for which it was initially collected as stated in this Privacy Policy, or subsequently authorized. We may continue processing your personal information for longer periods, but only for the time and to the extent such processing reasonably serves the purposes of archiving in the public interest, journalism, literature and art, scientific or historical research and statistical analysis, and subject to the protection of this Privacy Policy. For example, if you are an author, your personal information may continue to be published in connection with your article indefinitely. When we have no ongoing legitimate business need to process your personal information, we will either delete or anonymize it, or, if this is not possible (for example, because your personal information has been stored in backup archives), then we will securely store your personal information and isolate it from any further processing until deletion is possible.
  • Onward Transfer to Third Parties: As noted in the "How We Share Your Data" Section above, JD Supra may share your information with third parties. When JD Supra discloses your personal information to third parties, we have ensured that such third parties have either certified under the EU-U.S. or Swiss Privacy Shield Framework and will process all personal data received from EU member states/Switzerland in reliance on the applicable Privacy Shield Framework or that they have been subjected to strict contractual provisions in their contract with us to guarantee an adequate level of data protection for your data.

California Privacy Rights

Pursuant to Section 1798.83 of the California Civil Code, our customers who are California residents have the right to request certain information regarding our disclosure of personal information to third parties for their direct marketing purposes.

You can make a request for this information by emailing us at privacy@jdsupra.com or by writing to us at:

Privacy Officer
JD Supra, LLC
10 Liberty Ship Way, Suite 300
Sausalito, California 94965

Some browsers have incorporated a Do Not Track (DNT) feature. These features, when turned on, send a signal that you prefer that the website you are visiting not collect and use data regarding your online searching and browsing activities. As there is not yet a common understanding on how to interpret the DNT signal, we currently do not respond to DNT signals on our site.

Access/Correct/Update/Delete Personal Information

For non-EU/Swiss residents, if you would like to know what personal information we have about you, you can send an e-mail to privacy@jdsupra.com. We will be in contact with you (by mail or otherwise) to verify your identity and provide you the information you request. We will respond within 30 days to your request for access to your personal information. In some cases, we may not be able to remove your personal information, in which case we will let you know if we are unable to do so and why. If you would like to correct or update your personal information, you can manage your profile and subscriptions through our Privacy Center under the "My Account" dashboard. If you would like to delete your account or remove your information from our Website and Services, send an e-mail to privacy@jdsupra.com.

Changes in Our Privacy Policy

We reserve the right to change this Privacy Policy at any time. Please refer to the date at the top of this page to determine when this Policy was last revised. Any changes to our Privacy Policy will become effective upon posting of the revised policy on the Website. By continuing to use our Website and Services following such changes, you will be deemed to have agreed to such changes.

Contacting JD Supra

If you have any questions about this Privacy Policy, the practices of this site, your dealings with our Website or Services, or if you would like to change any of the information you have provided to us, please contact us at: privacy@jdsupra.com.

JD Supra Cookie Guide

As with many websites, JD Supra's website (located at www.jdsupra.com) (our "Website") and our services (such as our email article digests)(our "Services") use a standard technology called a "cookie" and other similar technologies (such as, pixels and web beacons), which are small data files that are transferred to your computer when you use our Website and Services. These technologies automatically identify your browser whenever you interact with our Website and Services.

How We Use Cookies and Other Tracking Technologies

We use cookies and other tracking technologies to:

  1. Improve the user experience on our Website and Services;
  2. Store the authorization token that users receive when they login to the private areas of our Website. This token is specific to a user's login session and requires a valid username and password to obtain. It is required to access the user's profile information, subscriptions, and analytics;
  3. Track anonymous site usage; and
  4. Permit connectivity with social media networks to permit content sharing.

There are different types of cookies and other technologies used our Website, notably:

  • "Session cookies" - These cookies only last as long as your online session, and disappear from your computer or device when you close your browser (like Internet Explorer, Google Chrome or Safari).
  • "Persistent cookies" - These cookies stay on your computer or device after your browser has been closed and last for a time specified in the cookie. We use persistent cookies when we need to know who you are for more than one browsing session. For example, we use them to remember your preferences for the next time you visit.
  • "Web Beacons/Pixels" - Some of our web pages and emails may also contain small electronic images known as web beacons, clear GIFs or single-pixel GIFs. These images are placed on a web page or email and typically work in conjunction with cookies to collect data. We use these images to identify our users and user behavior, such as counting the number of users who have visited a web page or acted upon one of our email digests.

JD Supra Cookies. We place our own cookies on your computer to track certain information about you while you are using our Website and Services. For example, we place a session cookie on your computer each time you visit our Website. We use these cookies to allow you to log-in to your subscriber account. In addition, through these cookies we are able to collect information about how you use the Website, including what browser you may be using, your IP address, and the URL address you came from upon visiting our Website and the URL you next visit (even if those URLs are not on our Website). We also utilize email web beacons to monitor whether our emails are being delivered and read. We also use these tools to help deliver reader analytics to our authors to give them insight into their readership and help them to improve their content, so that it is most useful for our users.

Analytics/Performance Cookies. JD Supra also uses the following analytic tools to help us analyze the performance of our Website and Services as well as how visitors use our Website and Services:

  • HubSpot - For more information about HubSpot cookies, please visit legal.hubspot.com/privacy-policy.
  • New Relic - For more information on New Relic cookies, please visit www.newrelic.com/privacy.
  • Google Analytics - For more information on Google Analytics cookies, visit www.google.com/policies. To opt-out of being tracked by Google Analytics across all websites visit http://tools.google.com/dlpage/gaoptout. This will allow you to download and install a Google Analytics cookie-free web browser.

Facebook, Twitter and other Social Network Cookies. Our content pages allow you to share content appearing on our Website and Services to your social media accounts through the "Like," "Tweet," or similar buttons displayed on such pages. To accomplish this Service, we embed code that such third party social networks provide and that we do not control. These buttons know that you are logged in to your social network account and therefore such social networks could also know that you are viewing the JD Supra Website.

Controlling and Deleting Cookies

If you would like to change how a browser uses cookies, including blocking or deleting cookies from the JD Supra Website and Services you can do so by changing the settings in your web browser. To control cookies, most browsers allow you to either accept or reject all cookies, only accept certain types of cookies, or prompt you every time a site wishes to save a cookie. It's also easy to delete cookies that are already saved on your device by a browser.

The processes for controlling and deleting cookies vary depending on which browser you use. To find out how to do so with a particular browser, you can use your browser's "Help" function or alternatively, you can visit http://www.aboutcookies.org which explains, step-by-step, how to control and delete cookies in most browsers.

Updates to This Policy

We may update this cookie policy and our Privacy Policy from time-to-time, particularly as technology changes. You can always check this page for the latest version. We may also notify you of changes to our privacy policy by email.

Contacting JD Supra

If you have any questions about how we use cookies and other tracking technologies, please contact us at: privacy@jdsupra.com.

- hide

This website uses cookies to improve user experience, track anonymous site usage, store authorization tokens and permit sharing on social media networks. By continuing to browse this website you accept the use of cookies. Click here to read more about how we use cookies.