U.S. Supreme Court weighs major digital
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[November 29, 2017]
By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme
Court on Wednesday takes up a major test of privacy rights in the
digital age as it weighs whether police must obtain warrants to get data
on the past locations of criminal suspects using cellphone data from
The justices at 10 a.m. (1500 GMT) are due to hear an appeal by a man
named Timothy Carpenter convicted in a series of armed robberies in Ohio
and Michigan with the help of past cellphone location data that linked
him to the crime locations. His American Civil Liberties Union lawyers
argue that without a court-issued warrant such data amounts to an
unreasonable search and seizure under the U.S. Constitution's Fourth
Law enforcement authorities routinely request and receive this
information from wireless providers during criminal investigations as
they try to link a suspect to a crime.
Police helped establish that Carpenter was near the scene of the
robberies of Radio Shack and T-Mobile stores by securing from his
cellphone carrier his past "cell site location information" tracking
which cellphone towers had relayed his calls.
The legal fight has raised questions about the degree to which companies
protect their customers' privacy rights. The big four wireless carriers,
Verizon Communications Inc, AT&T Inc, T-Mobile US Inc and Sprint Corp,
receive tens of thousands of these requests annually from law
Verizon was the only one of those four companies to tell the Supreme
Court that it favors strong privacy protections for its customers, with
the other three sitting on the sidelines.
There is growing scrutiny of the surveillance practices of U.S. law
enforcement and intelligence agencies amid concern among lawmakers
across the political spectrum about civil liberties and authorities
evading warrant requirements.
The Supreme Court twice in recent years has ruled on major cases
concerning how criminal law applies to new technology, both times ruling
against law enforcement. In 2012, the court held that a warrant is
required to place a GPS tracking device on a vehicle. Two years later,
the court said police need a warrant to search a cellphone seized during
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A woman uses her phone to photograph One World Trade Center tower in
New York, NY, U.S. on August 27, 2015. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File
Carpenter's bid to suppress the evidence failed and he was convicted
of six robbery counts. On appeal, the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S.
Circuit Court of Appeals upheld his convictions, finding that no
warrant was required for the cellphone data.
The ACLU said in court papers that police need "probable cause," and
therefore a warrant, in order to meet Fourth Amendment requirements.
Based on a provision of a 1986 federal law called the Stored
Communications Act, the Justice Department said probable cause is
not needed to obtain customer records. Instead, it argues,
prosecutors must show only that there are "reasonable grounds" for
the records to be provided and that they are "relevant and material"
to an investigation.
President Donald Trump's administration said in court papers the
government has a "compelling interest" in acquiring the data without
a warrant because the information is particularly useful at the
early stages of a criminal investigation.
Civil liberties groups said the 1986 law did not anticipate the way
mobile devices now contain a wealth of data on each user.
A ruling is due by the end of June.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)
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