How did the lower courts rule?
Carpenter v. United States is a case docketed for oral argument during the October 2017 term of the U.S. Supreme Court. The case comes on a writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.
The case: Timothy Ivory Carpenter and Timothy Michael Sanders, the petitioners in this case, were convicted based on cell tower data collected by the petitioners' cellular service providers and obtained by the government without a warrant; instead, the information was obtained via judicial orders authorized under the Stored Communications Act for the collection and use of the data. Carpenter and Sanders argued that the government both conducted an illegal search without a warrant and improperly seized their private property (the cell tower data), in violation of the Fourth Amendment.
The issue: Under the Fourth Amendment, was the government required to obtain a warrant, based on probable cause, in order to obtain and use the cell tower evidence in this case?
The outcome: The appeal is pending adjudication before the U.S. Supreme Court.
In brief: Based on information obtained from a suspect's cell phone, which was surrendered to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) by the suspect, the FBI arrested Timothy Ivory Carpenter and Timothy Michael Sanders. The information from the cell phone provided the FBI's basis to petition for judicial orders under the Stored Communications Act (hereafter, SCA) to obtain call and cell phone location data held by Carpenter's and Sanders' cellular service providers. The SCA did not require the government to show probable cause or to obtain a warrant in order to obtain the data. The FBI received the orders and arrested Carpenter and Sanders, in part, on the basis of the location data provided by the cell phone providers. Carpenter and Sanders moved to suppress the data before trial, which a federal district court denied. Both were convicted of multiple federal charges. A three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the convictions, holding that the use of the cell tower data did not constitute a search under the Fourth Amendment and, as such, no warrant was required in order to use the data. Argument in the case will be held during the 2017 term of the U.S. Supreme Court. You can review the lower court's opinion here.
Two years ago I was stopped in Cartersville by a state trooper. My crime? My Suburban's windows were too heavily tinted and he couldn't see or determine what I was doing in the privacy of my vehicle. I asked him if he'd like to come by the house and check out what was going on inside. No sense of humor and I got the ticket.3-- An unspoken legal principle guiding most lawyers, and judges, is that government is good and is SUPPOSED to know everything that's going on in the USA. Collecting the data is fine. It's only when the government wrongly uses the data to justify laying hands on people, seizing them, shutting down their businesses, taking their property, etc. that the courts should serve as a check and balance against the government. But spying on citizens is cool, and today's citizens should have a lower expectation of privacy anyway because, well, 9/11 and the War on Terror and neo-Nazis and jihadists and all that.
(No court case to cite here.)