Chief’s Counsel: Carpenter v. United States: Digital Privacy in the 21st Century

The U.S. Supreme Court’s June 22, 2018, decision in Carpenter v. United States held that, before compelling a wireless carrier to turn over a subscriber’s cell-site location information (CSLI), the government’s obligation is a familiar one—get a warrant! Justices on both sides of the ideological spectrum said that rapid advances in modern technology made decades-old case precedents inadequate for the public and law enforcement. The majority said that the digital data at issue in this case—personal location information maintained by a third party—do not fit neatly under existing precedents, but lie instead at the intersection of two lines of cases. In the 2012 United States v. Jones, the court held that police had to establish probable cause for a search before they could place a GPS tracking device on a vehicle. The U.S. Supreme Court justices voted unanimously that the act of placing a tracking device on a car was a “search” under the Fourth Amendment, although they were split 5-4 as to the fundamental reason behind that conclusion. Then, two years later in 2014, the court unanimously held that the warrantless search and seizure of digital contents of a cellphone during an arrest is unconstitutional in Riley v. California. It was only a matter of time before facts like those in the Carpenter case came before the court.