Supreme Court to Rule on Cellphone Location Data

John Lister's picture

The Supreme Court is to examine whether the government must get a search warrant before making cellphone carriers hand over a customer's location history. It's the final step in a six-year case centered on a robbery conviction.

Timothy Carter was convicted thanks to police evidence showing location data from his phone. In total they had 12,898 records of his location covering a 127-day period. The data came from MetroPCS, which was his cellphone carrier, as well as from Sprint which shared data from when he had received roaming coverage.

Data Treated Differently to Phone Itself

Carter's lawyers argue that the evidence should be inadmissible. Although the police got a search warrant to order the carriers to provide the data, Carter's lawyers say the courts were wrong to issue the order because it violated the fourth amendment.

After Carter took the case to appeal, a federal appeals court ruled that location data was not protected by the fourth amendment. The judges decided that location data should be treated like most other digital records, which are covered by the Stored Communications Act. They rejected Carter's argument that the data should instead be treated in the same way as the phone itself, which usually can't be physically examined without a warrant.

State Rules Currently Confusing

The government lawyers in the case had cited rulings from the 1970s that said it was OK for police to go through business records without a warrant, even if that meant finding personal information. They said that location data for an individual was part of wider business records held by a phone carrier. (Source:

The American Civil Liberties Union has taken on the case and successfully applied for the Supreme Court to consider the question of how to treat location data. The ruling will set a precedent, which could be particularly important as the rules on getting warrants for location data currently vary from state to state. Those rules would be overridden if the Supreme Court says there's a constitutional issue at stake. (Source:

Search Warrant and Cellphone Data: Similar Case

Some were surprised by these developments, as the Supreme Court had previously refused to consider a very similar case involving a man named Quartavious Davis who was also convicted based on location information

There's a slight difference, though. In that case, the appeals court said the case qualified as a "good faith exception", meaning that even if the search of Davis's records had breached the fourth amendment, the evidence should still be admissible because the police believed they were acting legally. As such: if the Supreme Court ruled on the constitutional issue, it wouldn't have affected the conviction itself. With Carter's case, the interpretation of the constitution will determine whether his conviction stands.

What's Your Opinion?

Should the government be able to demand location data without a warrant? Is this a constitutional issue or should individual states decide the rules? Does the fourth amendment need a wider review to cover today's digital information and records?

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Chief's picture

If the police have enough evidence to finger the suspect, they should have no problem getting a warrant.

If they don't, they need to continue to look.

Until the phone carriers are sworn officers of the law they'd better require a warrant before releasing information.

matt_2058's picture

A warrant should be required. If only businesses would value their customers and respect their privacy, this wouldn't be an issue because they wouldn't turn anything over without the warrant.

Just my thoughts...
--First, is phone location history considered to be one of the subjects of the Amendment ("The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated...")?
--Second, who does the information belong to, the customer or the business?
--Third, is a business violating the privacy of an entity by disclosing personally identifying information?

If #1 is true, next. For me, #2 and #3 is where the argument should be. I believe in a person's right to be private and maintain that privacy. With that, I believe the specific records belong to the customer. The provider uses the excuse they they use a person's data to improve their business and provide a better product. I'm ok with that. I'm not ok with dissemination of anyone's personal records...voluntary or not.