The United States Supreme Court has just agreed to hear the case of a Detroit man who was sentenced to 116 years in prison after data from his own cellular phone was used against him at his trial for his role in a string of robberies of Radio Shacks and T-Mobile stores in metro Detroit and Ohio over a two-year period.
Timothy Ivory Carpenter, who was sentenced in 2014 in U.S. District Court, was alleged to have organized the robberies and cell phone data obtained without a warrant from his provider was presented at his trial that indicated, according to an expert witness, that he was in the vicinity of the robberies when they occurred.
On appeal, Carpenter and another defendant, both of whom were represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups, argued that data revealing the locations of their cell phones supplied to investigators by wireless carriers should have been excluded from trial. They argued that because those records were created for the purpose of determining the costs of their cell phone bills, collecting that data violated constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.
The Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the argument in April 2016, saying that while the contents of personal communications are private, “the information necessary to get those communications from point A to point B is not,” including data concerning which cell phone towers are accessed when such communications are made.
Critics say prosecutors obtain massive amounts of data without ever having to meet the “probable cause” standards for a search warrant. Indeed, the largest telecommunications providers receive tens of thousands of requests for location information every year under the 1986 Stored Communications Act, which doesn’t require a warrant.
In agreeing to take up the case, the U.S. Supreme Court will consider whether prosecutors need a warrant to obtain mobile-phone tower records that show a person’s location.
The case is Carpenter v. United States, 16-402.