Carpenter v. United States and the warrantless search and seizure of cell phone records

In the age of digital media and cellular devices, constant information and correspondence is circulated among individuals. In fact, according to recent statistics, there are nearly 224.3 smartphone users in the United States, with approximately 2 billion users globally.


While cell phones have proved to advance the rapidness of communication among people and the acquisition and collaboration of information, some users can find themselves in legal trouble because of their cell phone records related to crimes committed.


For instance, the Supreme Court of the United States in recent years has taken on an increasing amount of cases concerning cellular mobile devices and similar 21st century technology. Particularly, in June of 2018 the Supreme Court released its decision on a case; Carpenter v. United States, concerning the warrantless search and seizure of cell phone records that included the location and movements of cell phone users.


Carpenter v. United States facts of the case include that in April 2011 police arrested four men in relation to a series of armed robberies in Michigan and Ohio. One of those arrested men then confessed to the crimes brought against him and correspondingly, gave the FBI his cell phone number and the numbers of the other men in participation. From there, the FBI used this information to apply for orders of magistrate judges to obtain the transactional records for each of the phone numbers, including Timothy Carpenter’s cell phone. Eventually, using the transactional information including the date, time, and location of calls based on their “cell site location information (CSLI)” the government charged Carpenter with aiding and abetting the robberies.


Carpenter however, appealed his case to the Sixth Circuit where similarly they affirmed the District Court’s decision, then ultimately his petition for a writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court was granted in the October 2017 term.


In the Court’s 5-4 majority in favor of Carpenter, Chief Justice John Roberts, author of the opinion, ordered that the government’s warrantless seizure of Carpenter’s cell-site records thereby violated his Fourth Amendment rights. More in depth, Roberts acknowledged that the Fourth Amendment does not exclusively protect only property interests, but includes other considerable expectations of citizens’ property, in this case, a cell phone.


Overall, the Court’s ruling in favor of Carpenter is a landmark decision. Prior to Carpenter, government entities such as the FBI could easily acquire cellphone location records without a search warrant as long as they claimed the records were a critical part of an investigation.


With the Supreme Court decision made in June 2018, the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution also protects the privacy of cell phone records. Now, government entities must first obtain a search warrant in order to access the information found within cell-site location information and their related connection towers.