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American With a Cellphone? This Ruling Affects You

Supreme Court says warrants generally needed to track location data
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 22, 2018 11:34 AM CDT
A 5-4 decision Friday means police generally need a search warrant to track suspects' movements through location data.   (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

(Newser) – It's being described as a landmark decision in favor of privacy: The Supreme Court ruled Friday that the government in most cases needs a warrant to track a person's location by grabbing data from cellphone towers. Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the four liberal-leaning justices and wrote the majority opinion, though he added that warrants can be skipped in emergency situations to avert an imminent threat, reports USA Today. The case stems from a series of armed robberies in Michigan and Ohio in 2010 and 2011. Under the Stored Communications Act of 1986, the government obtained cellphone records for suspect Timothy Carpenter that revealed 12,898 location points over 127 days, reports CNET. He was later sentenced to 116 years in prison, per the Guardian.

Friday's ruling says obtaining an "all-encompassing record" of a person's whereabouts without a warrant is a form of unreasonable search and seizure. "The Government's position fails to contend with the seismic shifts in digital technology that made possible the tracking of not only Carpenter's location but also everyone else's, not for a short period but for years and years," Roberts writes, noting that people "compulsively carry cell phones with them all the time." In a rare move, all four dissenting justices wrote their own opinions. For example, Samuel Alito said the ruling "guarantees a blizzard of litigation while threatening many legitimate and valuable investigative practices upon which law enforcement has rightfully come to rely." (Read more US Supreme Court stories.)

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