01.24.2018

On November 29th, 2017, the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral arguments in the case of Carpenter v. United States. The primary issue at stake is whether or not law enforcement officers must obtain a warrant before searching through historical cell phone site location information held by third parties. In this article, our experienced Raleigh criminal defense attorneys offer an analysis of the key facts of this case.

Understanding the Case: Carpenter v. United States

Background Facts


In 2011, police arrested four men for allegedly taking part in a series of armed robberies. The crimes occurred throughout the Detroit metropolitan area. Upon interrogation, one of the suspects offered a confession. He agreed to give law enforcement officers access to his cell phone. He also gave officers the cell phone contact information for the alleged co-conspirators.

The law enforcement officers took that information and used it to apply for magistrate orders to get ‘transactional records’ for the associated phone numbers. Transactional records include information such as the date and time of phone calls and the approximate location of the cell phone during calls. Magistrate judges have the authority to issue these orders under the Stored Communications Act.

The Legal Issue

A magistrate order issued under the stored communications act is not the same thing as a search warrant. To a magistrate order, law enforcement officers must only show that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the information being sought is “relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation”. This is a much lower standard than the fourth amendment’s standard of probable cause. The question in Carpenter v. United States is as: Does the warrantless search and seizure of cell site location data violate the Fourth Amendment?

An Important SCOTUS Decision is Coming

In making its case before the nation’s highest court, the United States government relies on the Stored Communications Act, and Smith v. Maryland. This is a 1979 Supreme Court case. In it, the court determined that law enforcement officers could use a dialed number recorder without a warrant. The Smith court reasoned that in 1979 individuals did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the numbers that they dialed. This is because those individuals knew that they were voluntarily providing that information to the telephone company. The court applied the third-party disclosure doctrine which essentially means that any information that an individual voluntarily discloses to a third party is not subject to the fourth amendment.

On the other side, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) argues that cell phones have become so intertwined with modern life that users now have a reasonable expectation of privacy, even though individuals voluntarily provide the data to third-party cell providers because cell phones transmit so much of sensitive data from the everyday use. Historical cell site data now contains location information that police use to retroactively determine where a caller’s location during a call. This level of detailed information was not available in 1979. Under the ACLU’s argument, the Fourth Amendment protects cell data. The Supreme Court decision, which they will announce by the end of the term in June of 2018, has the potential to fundamentally alter criminal procedure and the way police and prosecutors investigate and prosecute criminal cases.

Do You Advice From a North Carolina Criminal Defense Lawyer?

Our legal team can help. At Tarlton & Polk, our North Carolina criminal defense attorneys have deep experience handling a wide variety of cases. To set up a fully confidential review of your situation, please contact us today. From our office in Raleigh, we represent clients throughout the Eastern District of North Carolina, including in Wake County, Durham County, and Johnston County.

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