The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday imposed limits on the ability of police to obtain cellphone data pinpointing the past location of criminal suspects in a victory for digital privacy advocates and a setback for law enforcement authorities.
In the 5-4 ruling, the court said police generally need a court-approved warrant to get access to the data, setting a higher legal hurdle than previously existed under federal law. The court said obtaining such data without a warrant from wireless carriers, as police routinely do, amounts to an unreasonable search and seizure under the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment.
In the ruling written by conservative Chief Justice John Roberts, the court decided in favor of Timothy Carpenter, who was convicted in several armed robberies at Radio Shack and T-Mobile stores in Ohio and Michigan with the help of past cellphone location data that linked him to the crime scenes.
“We decline to grant the state unrestricted access to a wireless carrier’s database of physical location information,” Roberts said. He added that the ruling still allows the police to avoid obtaining warrants for other types of business records.
Carpenter’s lawyers at the American Civil Liberties Union argued that police needed “probable cause,” and therefore a warrant, to avoid a Fourth Amendment violation.
The case underscored the rising concerns among privacy advocates about the government’s ability to obtain an ever-growing amount of personal data. During arguments in the case in December, liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor alluded to fears of “Big Brother,” the all-seeing leader in George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984.”
SOURCE: Reuters, Lawrence Hurley