US Supreme Court Case Could Attack Fourth Amendment Rights

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Carpenter v. United States, a case currently going through the Supreme Court of the United States, is set to establish an fundamentally important legal decision regarding privacy laws in the US. In this case, the Supreme Court will determine whether law enforcement can access cell site location information (CSLI) without probable cause to get a search warrant. Carpenter will decide whether the courts choose to reaffirm the Fourth Amendment rights of Americans which guarantee freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures or whether these rights will be further endangered.

The appellant of the case, Timothy Carpenter, was identified as a suspect for an organized series of armed robberies in the Detroit area. During the investigation, the FBI was able to access months of CSLI information on Carpenter’s cellphone without a warrant. Using this data, they were able to place his cellphone at a 2-mile distance to one of the robberies at the time of the incident. In light of this, Carpenter was convicted and sentenced to 116 years in prison.

CSLI is information that is automatically generated when a mobile connects to a cell tower and allows the location of the cell phone to be tracked. It is becoming increasingly integral to police investigations in the modern era, with telecommunication companies like AT&T and Verizon getting about 125, 000 requests from law enforcement to access cellphone data. Many people criticize this practice for violating the Fourth Amendment as it encroaches on citizens’ right to privacy.

Carpenter’s case is based on the same argument. He alleged that his freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures was taken away when his CSLI data was accessed without a warrant. However, the Sixth Circuit ruled against Carpenter citing the third-party doctrine, a legal doctrine which forms the basis of many of the US government’s surveillance programs. Under this doctrine, information that citizens voluntarily give to third parties, such as telecom companies, is viewed as lying outside the protection of the Fourth Amendment. Carpenter has since appealed this decision and it is now brought before the Supreme Court.

The third-party doctrine is a legal doctrine which could have massive consequences for privacy rights in the United States. It was originally conceived in 1976 in the case of United States v. Miller. Miller was a bootlegger who was convicted on the basis of his bank records which were subpoenaed without a warrant under the Bank Secrecy Act. Similar to Carpenter, Miller also appealed the decision on the Fourth Amendment argument, but his appeal was denied.

The Courts arrived at the same decision in Smith v. Maryland, where the third-party doctrine was extended to include telephone numbers in phone company records. In the wake of these decisions, the third-party doctrine has allowed the courts and law enforcement to justify violations upon the constitutional rights of US citizens. Under this doctrine, the federal government even has the legal authority to create large surveillance databases which can track millions of Americans.

It seems that the Fourth Amendment rights surrounding telecom data have been dangerously and actively relaxed by the courts over recent times. However, Carpenter once again will provide the courts with the opportunity to re-examine the third-party doctrine and make a landmark decision which could either further weaken or reaffirm Fourth Amendment rights of American citizens.

This blog post was written by a CCLA-PBSC RightsWatch student. Views expressed do not necessarily reflect the view of the CCLA or PBSC.