A few months back, the Supreme Court announced that it would review a decision made by the U.S. Court of Appeals' 6th Circuit Decision in the controversial case, Carpenter v. United States. The potential landmark case has cultivated an array of questions concerning the fourth amendment and the extent of its protections in regard to government access to cell-site records. The Supreme Court's agreement to review the case is a crucial development, as the future of surveillance law as we know it rests on how the high court will rule.
For the purposes of this article, we will address the details of the case and the issues that it raises.
The Case: Carpenter v. United States
Between the timeframe of December 2010 and March 2011, a group of men from Detroit, Michigan partook in a series of armed robberies at T-Mobile and RadioShack in Michigan and Ohio areas. The men entered the stores with massive empty bags, wielded their guns, and ordered employees and customers grab as many new smartphones as they could to fill the bags. A month after their latest heist, in April 2011, four of the robbers were arrested. Carpenter, who has been deemed the mastermind behind the robberies, was not among the men who were captured. During interrogation processes, one of the men in police custody confessed, and turned over his phone to the FBI for review of his calls made to other conspirators around the time of the robberies.
Subsequently, the FBI submitted a request to obtain “transactional records” from several wireless carriers for 16 different phone numbers that were called by the captured man around the time of the robberies. Carpenter's number was included. These records include cell site information, subscriber information, “call origination and at call termination for incoming and outgoing calls.”
A magistrate judge granted the request, in accordance with the Stored Communications Act. The statute requires reasonable suspicion, rather than probable cause, which is needed for a warrant. Given the green light, the FBI immediately went after Carpenter. His cell site records revealed that he was in communication with cell towers near four robbers over a five-month window. As a result, Carpenter was sentenced to 116 years in federal prison.
Carpenter appealed his conviction and sentence to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, claiming that his Fourth Amendment right had been violated. The Fourth Amendment protects “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.”
A Judge delivered the opinion of the court, affirming the man's conviction and sentence using the previous decision of the Supreme Court. They concluded that cell site data - phone numbers, IP addresses, mailing addresses etc. - is information that facilitates personal communications, and that the content of these communications was not accessed without a warrant. The court also asserted that the collection of the provider's records did not constitute as a “search.”
The Supreme Court will likely assess two points: (1) Does the collection of records constitute as a Fourth Amendment search? (2) If so, is it a search that requires a warrant?
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