Technology advances so quickly that the courts have little hope of keeping up. Cases involving new technologies take years to make their way to the high court. During that time period, lower courts are often bound by precedents related to already outmoded technologies. A sort of legal limbo occurs, where litigants, lawyers, and the public remain uncertain about the law.
Though law enforcement and prosecutors have been using cellphone evidence for two decades, the Supreme Court has yet to make a definitive ruling on the constitutionality of warrantless access to a defendant’s cellphone data. The question will finally be decided later this year, when the supreme court issues its ruling on Carpenter v. United States. The court’s ruling will decide whether Carpenter’s fourth amendment rights were violated when the FBI obtained his cellphone records without a warrant and used them as evidence against him.
The Carpenter Case
In April, 2011, Carpenter was arrested for robbery, along with three other men. One of the other suspects confessed and provided the FBI with the phone numbers of the other suspects, including Carpenter’s. The FBI applied for and received a magistrate’s order for Carpenter’s cellphone’s transactional records, which show his calls and the locations and times he made them. Based partially on this evidence, Carpenter was convicted of robbery.
He appealed, and the sixth circuit federal court affirmed his conviction. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in his case and, as of June 4th, 2018, he is awaiting the decision.
The case’s impact
The Carpenter case is widely expected to provide the definitive answer to whether law enforcement must obtain a warrant for cellphone data. In Carpenter’s case, he argues that the magistrate’s order was not enough to meet constitutional requirements. His lawyers believe that the fourth amendment, when it states citizens have the right to privacy in their personal effects, includes cellphone data.
Courts have a history of looking backwards for guidance in technology-related cases, which often results in the court basing its decision on an analogy. For example, a tablet could be compared to a notebook in terms of determining if the data on the tablet constituted protected data. The court now will struggle to determine how the framers of the constitution would view the seizure of Carpenter’s phone records.
Legal experts anxiously await the decision. Many courts, as seen from the Carpenter case, lean toward law-enforcement’s view that the constitution provides no protection for cellphone records. When the court rules, a definitive standard will apply across the U.S.