2018-06-23#2018: a 5-4 landmark decision, the United States Supreme Court ruled Friday that police must obtain a search warrant to access an individual's cellphone location information.
Chief Justice John Roberts said that cellphone location information is a "near perfect" tool for government surveillance, analogous to an electronic monitoring ankle bracelet. The writers of the Constitution, he said, would certainly have understood that an individual has a privacy interest in the day-to-day, hour-to-hour and even minute-to-minute records of his whereabouts — a privacy interest that requires the government to get a search warrant before gaining access to that information.
Roberts also said Friday's decision does not call into question the use of security cameras and other techniques, and it "does not consider other collection techniques involving foreign affairs and national security." What it does do, he said, is "ensure that the progress of science does not erode the Fourth Amendment" guarantee of privacy.
The four dissenting judges wrote separattly:
Kennedy's dissent noted that "cell site records are created, kept, owned and controlled by cellphone service providers, who even sell this information to third parties." Therefore, he said, Carpenter cannot claim ownership or possession of the records and has no control over them.
Alito chimed in even more strongly. "The Court's reasoning fractures two fundamental pillars of Fourth Amendment law, and in doing so, it guarantees a blizzard of litigation while threatening many legitimate and valuable investigative practices upon which law enforcement has rightfully come to rely," he said.
He called the majority decision "mystifying" and "puzzling," and he noted that service providers routinely charge cellphone users a fee to inspect their own records. "It would be very strange if the owner of the records were required to pay in order to inspect his own property," Alito said.
Thomas said that the case should turn not on whether a search occurred but on whose property was searched, and "the Fourth Amendment guarantees individuals the right to be secure from searches of their persons, houses, papers and effects." Here, he said, the records don't belong to Carpenter but rather to the service provider.