The Supreme Court weighs the privacy of cell phone records: Can the police track the travel of a suspect?



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The Supreme Court weighed privacy rights in the digital age on Wednesday, addressing the question of whether the police can obtain the cell phone records of a suspect to track their travel for four months without a search warrant.

The answer seemed to be: No.

During an intense oral discussion, the nine judges sounded divided into unusual lines, but most seemed to agree that collecting data from cell towers to track a suspect's movements for 127 days amounted to an unreasonable search.

It was not clear They would simply decide to limit how long the police can trace a suspect through their mobile phone or, instead, widely rule that the cell phone records are private and outside the boundaries of the police or the FBI without a search warrant.

That would amount to a major change in the law, the government told the court, and one that could hinder investigations when the police do not know who committed a murder, robbed a bank, kidnapped a child or fired a bomb. [196] 59002] In those cases, investigators often obtain data from cell phone towers to reduce the list of people who were nearby when the crime was committed. They would not have "probable cause" to obtain an arrest warrant for a particular suspect and his cell phone.

On the contrary, the case that was heard on Wednesday began when the police learned that Timothy Carpenter was the leader of a robbery network in Detroit. Several of his cohorts had confessed.

To build their case, prosecutors obtained a magistrate order that required several wireless operators to deliver 16 telephone number records that Carpenter had used for four months. The data confirmed that he was close when his accomplices carried out eight robberies in Radio Shack stores. He was sentenced and sentenced to 116 years in prison.

According to current federal law, the prosecutor must show the magistrate only that cell phone records are "relevant and material for a criminal investigation in progress."

In his appeal, ACLU attorney Nathan Wessler urged the court to set a higher standard and require prosecutors to show "probable cause" that the suspect was involved in a crime.

He described cell phones as a "kind of time machine" that allows police and prosecutors to track the movements of a suspect over a long period of time.

His argument focused on the duration of the follow-up. He urged the court to set a one-day limit for cell phone records.

How about "the day of each robbery"? Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked. There were eight robberies. "Why would not it be just as reasonable for each theft?" He asked.

Judge Sonia Sotomayor asked about a crime like a bank robbery. "Could the police simply get a dump from the cell site tower to see who was in the area at the time?"

Yes, said Wessler. "I think that would not be affected by this case, that would be very short term."

Judges Samuel A. Alito and Anthony M. Kennedy were the most skeptical of the ACLU's argument.

In the past, the court said the police needed a search warrant before hearing phone calls from the suspect or, more recently, downloaded digital content from a smartphone. Those involve private information protected by the 4th Amendment.

But the court said investigators can obtain bank records and phone records without a search warrant because customers made calls or wrote checks and because the records were in the hands of a private company, not the government. Alito said he did not see the need to change that framework.

"Why is cell site location information more sensitive than bank records?" He asked.

Wessler said that drawing a "minute-by-minute account of a person's location" reveals more confidential information than checks showing a person's purchases, but Alito said he was not convinced.

Kennedy said that Congress had established a reasonable rule that requires the police to demonstrate why the records are relevant to a particular crime. "You give a zero weight to that," he told Wessler.

But Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Judge Elena Kagan said they saw the need to establish new legal limits on the use of tracking technology.

In the past, the government "never had the ability to return even for 24 hours and, basically, to test everyone, everyone in the community that was there," Roberts said. "The government did not have the ability to track an individual or each individual."

He questioned why the ACLU attorney did not seek a wider prohibition on using cell phone records.

Kagan said the judges agreed in 2012 that the police needed an order to connect a GPS device in a suspect's car to track their movements. Why not treat cell phone data in the same way? she asked. "In both cases, you depend on a new technology that allows monitoring 24 hours a day, 7 days a week," he said.

Assistant Superintendent General Michael Dreeben said that the two cases are "fundamentally different." The case of GPS "involved government surveillance". "He said, while cell phone records are kept by private companies and can be obtained by the government in limited circumstances.

But the judges did not seem convinced by that argument." Citing an opinion poll, Sotomayor said: " Most Americans want to avoid Big Brother. They want to avoid the concept that the government will be able to see it and locate it wherever it is at any time. "

Carpenter's case against the United States brought together right-wing and left-wing legal interest groups. writings urging the court to extend privacy rights to cell phone records, otherwise, they say, the government could use this vast database to freely track someone's movements for weeks or months.

] Government lawyers argued that the right to privacy does not extend to travel in public, and surveillance cameras and toll booths can track travelers without raising constitutional issues, they said.

While Carpenter can earn his appeal, the decision may not help him, as Alito said during the discussion, as the prosecutors acted in "good faith" when they went to the The courts, and they obtained the data, said Alito, the sentence will probably not be affected by a ruling that changes the law.

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Twitter: DavidGSavage

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