Police tracking is nothing new. Police officers often follow suspects or check on their alibi. On the other hand, searching a suspect’s home or their person requires a court-approved search warrant. However, developing cell phone technology has given law enforcement another route to track individuals.
Cell phone towers can essentially track phone users at all times, day and night. This information can be obtained by law enforcement without permission under the Stored Communications Act. Police officers can sift through months of text and call data, using any of that information against defendants in criminal cases. Prosecutors could use phone tracking to affirm the defendant’s location during the time the crime was supposedly committed.
The Supreme Court questions if it is a violation of privacy
The case of Timothy Carpenter v. United States involved a series of armed robberies at Radio Shacks in Ohio and Michigan. Timothy Carpenter was identified as the robbery ringleader by another suspect. The police used Carpenter’s cell phone location to confirm his whereabouts during each of the robberies. An experienced attorney may be able to refute evidence that a defendant was within near proximity of a crime when it happened, but it would be difficult.
Now, the Supreme Court is questioning whether the police should have been required to submit a search warrant to gain the defendant’s cell phone data. A search warrant would require a judge to approve the warrant only after the police were able to provide probable cause of a crime. In the case of Timothy Carpenter, police took the information of 13,000 calls over four months without a warrant.
Some would say this is a violation of their right to privacy under the Fourth Amendment. However, the public’s information is considered fair evidence in court cases as long as the defendant has shared it with a third party. Under the Stored Communications Act, the third party is the cell phone company.
What is the outlook for the public’s data privacy?
It is becoming increasingly popular for private service providers to encrypt data content. In the near future police may not be able to obtain the locations of texts or calls without a search warrant.
With the boom of tracking technology, the Supreme Court has placed some restrictions. In 2012 police were no longer able to use a GPS tracking device without a warrant. Later in 2014, police could no longer confiscate a phone and view the contents without a search warrant.
In the Supreme Court hearing conducted last Wednesday, a majority of the justices agreed they would be willing to impose stricter limits on the government’s ability to access large amounts of cell phone data without a warrant.