Carpenter v. U.S. - Supreme Court Agrees to Hear a Case that Could Affect Criminal Defense in a Technologically Advanced Age

Posted by Blake Caulder | Nov 21, 2017

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.

Legal issues

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?

North Carolina Criminal Defense Attorneys

If you have been arrested and charged with a crime in North Carolina, you should immediately consult with an attorney. Our attorneys at Caulder & Valentine are have extensive experience successfully representing clients who have acquired felony and misdemeanor charges. Contact us today for a consultation.

About the Author

Blake Caulder

Blake is a North Carolina native who was born in Marion, but grew up in Rutherfordton. While he was truly blessed to be raised in a loving, caring, and stable home, Blake realized at a young age that not everyone had that opportunity and always had a heart to help his friends who were hurting. Upon graduating high school, Blake began working with his father who has a real estate office in Bat Cave, North Carolina, while at the same time, attending Gardner-Webb University. Blake was seeking what direction to go with his career. At the time, the most reasonable thing appeared to be to join his father in his real estate practice. But putting aside the financial aspect and given his passion to help people, Blake wanted to do something that would allow him to take that passion to a whole other level. That's when Blake found the practice of law. Upon graduating from GWU with a Bachelor of Science degree in Accounting, Blake was accepted to Elon Law School and was a recipient of a Presidential Scholarship. After completing his first year of law school at Elon, Blake transferred to Charlotte School of Law to be closer to home and his wife. As an attorney, Blake genuinely cares about each individual client. His first and foremost goal is to help every client achieve the best possible outcome in their case and he strives to make a difference in their lives. Blake practices in the areas of family law, criminal defense, civil litigation, personal injury, and estate planning. While attending law school, Blake acquired significant legal experience in multiple practice areas by interning with both the law firm of Tomblin, Farmer and Morris, PLLC and the legal department of Family Dollar. In addition, Blake defended clients in criminal cases through Charlotte School of Law's Criminal Justice Clinic and provided legal services to individuals who were starting businesses through the school's Entrepreneurship Clinic. When not practicing law, Blake loves being involved in the community, participating in the local prison ministry and community service opportunities. He is grateful to have a wonderful wife, Daniella, and they are blessed with two children, Coleman Blake and Candrea Renea.