Two hundred years before cell phones, the founding fathers enacted the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to protect our citizens' privacy. After suffering and escaping the King's “general” search and seizure activities without any warrants, much less probable cause, the colonies stood against any such activities, albeit after years of debate. The result was the Fourth Amendment. Fast forward to 2011. A gunman named Carpenter was arrested and convicted based, in part, on evidence gathered from cell tower site data without a warrant. The case and Carpenter's criminal defense sparked a deeper analysis and examination of privacy protection afforded citizens in the Fourth Amendment. On November 29, 2017, the United States Supreme Court will deliberate about how much latitude law enforcement may employ in conducting surveillance in a modern, digital world.
Carpenter vs. U.S. Case
The potentially paradigm-changing case facts of the Carpenter vs. U.S. case begin with a group of Detroit individuals conspiring and executing armed robberies in Michigan and Ohio. Ironically, the robbery ring targeted cell phones, and cell phone and electronics stores. The modus operandi of the group involved entering the stores with guns blazing, ordering all of the customers to the rear of the store, and instructing all the employees to empty the new cell phones into bags. In April 2011, four were captured, arrested, and charged. Authorities seized a cell phone from one of the arrested men after he confessed and agreed to comply with the investigation. FBI officials then ordered data derived from transactional records reflecting subscriber information, toll records, and call details of listed and unlisted numbers. A magistrate judge granted the request for records according to the Stored Communications Act.
The records revealed Carpenter's cell phone was engaged with cell towers within a two-mile radius of four of the robberies. Armed with the evidence, the FBI arrested him and filed charges. Eventually, he was convicted by a jury and sentenced to 1395 months or 116 years in federal prison for aiding and abetting the use or carriage of a firearm during a federal crime of violence. Carpenter was remanded to federal prison and began serving his sentence.
Request for Judicial Review
In 2015, Carpenter's criminal defense team filed an appeal. His 2015 appeal attempt failed when his conviction and sentence was upheld by the United States Court of Appeals to the Sixth Circuit Court. Then, in 2016, Carpenter petitioned for a writ of certiorari which was answered by the Electronic Frontier Foundation by filing an amicus curiae brief in support of Carpenter. When the Supreme Court hears oral arguments on the Carpenter vs. U.S. case, digital entities worldwide will be paying attention. The case illuminates the value of our citizen's privacy as it is measured against safety and law enforcement's ability to rapidly track and investigate suspects utilizing cell phone tower data without a warrant.
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