Many people may not know this, but your cell phone can be used as a tracking device allowing law enforcement to trace your historical location over days, weeks and even months. From a criminal law standpoint, the question arises whether or not the police can obtain information about where you have been without obtaining a warrant. This is the question to be decided by the US Supreme Court in Carpenter v. United States.
Unlawful Police Searches: Privacy In Greenville
Most people know that citizens are protected from unreasonable police searches and seizures. In general, the police must have probable cause or obtain a warrant from a judge. But what constitutes a “search” and what is a “seizure” are complicated legal questions. These questions have become even more complicated over the last 30 to 40 years with the amazing advances in electronics and communication technologies.
Many years ago, the Supreme Court held that putting a wiretap on your phone was a “search” that necessitated a warrant. The court held that we citizens have an expectation of privacy when we talk on the phone. But the court also held later that the police did not need a warrant to get a list of the phone numbers that you called and that called you — there was no expectation of privacy with respect to the phone numbers. A useful analogy is a letter that you place in the mail. The content of the letter — like the phone conversation — is private, but what is on the outside of the envelope is not — you expect the postal carrier to read the envelope to ensure it is delivered correctly. There is no expectation that the address on the envelope is private. Likewise, said the Supreme Court, with phone numbers. You know the phone company or service provider needs the number to make the connection. Thus, generally speaking, since there is no expectation of privacy, the police can obtain phone number information without a warrant.
Unlawful Police Searches: A Warrant Needed in Greenville to Search Your Cell Phone
Not too long ago, the Supreme Court held that a warrant was required for the police to search your cell phone here in Greenville. See Riley v. California, 134 S.Ct. 2473 (2014). The court noted that we upload, input into and store vast amounts of very personal information on our phones. Indeed, some of the Justices commented that a search of a cell phone can be more invasive than a search our homes.
The ruling in Riley makes sense based on previous Supreme Court cases. We have an expectation of privacy with respect to the content of our phones. But what about stored information about where we have been and where we went in Greenville and South Carolina at any and every minute of the day? Do we expect that information to be private?
Unlawful Police Searches In Greenville: Carpenter v. United States — Facts of Case
As noted, your phone can be used as a tracking device to provide the police with information on where you have been over the previous days, weeks and months. This is possible because, to function, your phone must be connected to a cell tower. Further, each cell tower has a specified range and if you are connected to a given cell tower, you must be near to that cell tower. As you walk or drive or ride, you are being switched from one cell tower to the next cell tower in the direction of your travel. This cell-site data is stored on your phone and stored by your service provider.
In Carpenter v. United States, the government obtained this type of cell-site data from the defendant’s cellular service providers and did so without first obtaining a warrant. The defendant was charged with several robberies. Using the cell-site data, the government created maps showing that Carpenter’s phone was within a half-mile to two miles of the location of each of the robberies around the time the robberies happened. At trial, these maps and testimony related thereto were allowed to be heard by the jury. Prior to trial, Carpenter’s counsel sought to suppress the cell-site data and the maps, but the motion was denied.
On appeal, the Sixth Circuit affirmed. Carpenter v. United States, 819 F. 3d 880 (6th Cir. 2016). The case is now before the US Supreme Court
Greenville SC Criminal Defense Attorneys: Contact The Law Office Of H. Chase Harbin Today
The skilled and experienced Greenville SC criminal defense attorneys at The Law Office of H. Chase Harbin will be watching the outcome of the case with interest. If you have been arrested or charged with a crime, call our Office immediately. We can protect your constitutional rights. You need an ally when confronted by the police. We will fight to protect you. Contact us today via email. We have offices in Greenville and Pickens, South Carolina.
Chase Harbin is a Criminal Defense Lawyer who practices in Pickens and Greenville, SC. He graduated from the University of South Carolina School of Law, and has been practicing law for 17 years now. Chase Harbin believes in defending the accused. Learn more about his experience by clicking here.