Supreme Court: Cops Can't Track Cell Phone Location Without A Warrant

THe Supreme Court ruled Friday that law enforcement cannot track people's movements for periods of weeks or months without a warrant.

In a 5-4 ruling, the court held that the acquisition of cell-site records by government officials is covered under the Fourth Amendment. 

Chief Justice John Roberts who wrote the opinion sided with the court's four liberal judges; Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer - while Justice Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch dissented.

While stressing that their decision doesn't question longstanding surveillance techniques and tools such as security cameras, Roberts said that historical cell-site records present even greater privacy concerns than monitoring via GPS.

"Here the progress of science has afforded law enforcement a powerful new tool to carry out its important responsibilities," Roberts said, adding "While individuals regularly leave their vehicles, they compulsively carry cell phones with them all the time."

"A cell phone faithfully follows its owner beyond public thoroughfares and into private residences, doctor’s offices, political headquarters, and other potentially revealing locales."

The conservative judges strongly objected - writing four times as much in their dissents than Roberts did for the court's majority. 

Justice Anthony Kennedy said the government's search of cellphone location records was permissible because they were held by the service provider, not the individual. "The court's new and uncharted course will inhibit law enforcement."

Justice Samuel Alito called it a "revolutionary" ruling that "guarantees a blizzard of litigation while threatening many legitimate and valuable investigative practices upon which law enforcement has rightfully come to rely." -USA Today

The foundation of the ruling stems from a series of armed robberies which took place in Michigan and Ohio between 2010 and 2011. To prosecute the suspect, Timothy Carpenter, the government used the Stored Communications Act of 1986 to obtain his cell phone location information - revealing his movement for more than 127 days and placing him in proximity to the crimes.

According to the Stored Communications Act, cell phone companies can turn over records to the government if there are "reasonable grounds" to believe they will help in a criminal investigation. This is a much lower standard than a warrant. 

Prior to Friday's ruling, lower courts upheld the search of Carpenter's records under the "third-party doctrine," which has been used in earlier Supreme Court cases to justify government access to suspects' bank records and landline phone numbers. 

In 2016, police made some 125,000 requests for cellphone location data from Verizon and AT&T alone, often involving several suspects over periods of months. Courts routinely grant those requests under the 1986 law. -USA Today

Privacy groups say that cellphone location data is different, however, and could lead to a slippery slope of privacy violations involving email, text messages, social media posts and internet browsing histories of suspects. 

In his opinion, Roberts noted that the intersection of privacy and technology will be "the real challenge for the next 50 years." 

"What does the Fourth Amendment mean when you can, through technology, literally see through walls with heat imaging?"


pods Joe Davola Fri, 06/22/2018 - 12:20 Permalink

Cops can still do this, but they have to develop a backstory to use the data.

Enter the CI or "anonymous tip" and whamo, they can still use this for actionable information. They just cannot use this as the basis for a warrant.

If anyone thinks they are going to stop using these devices, I have an iPhone to sell you. Doesn't track you at all. On sale, $4000.


In reply to by Joe Davola

daveO Urban Roman Fri, 06/22/2018 - 14:07 Permalink

"The court's new and uncharted course will inhibit law enforcement." Kennedy is almost always wrong.

I stopped carrying a live phone 1 year ago when I finally figured out how the crooks were tracking my movements, why lowlife Obama boys were showing up everywhere I went. After I stopped, I started noticing who exactly were showing up, mostly drug addicts and Charter/Spectrum employees. The Spectrum employees kept calling my voice mail(to this day), once within 50 feet of me, in order to get me to answer the ring on the cell. This, so they can acquire what they think is a new phone's signal. I suspect at least one crooked cop is involved also. I suspect this cop had been illegally wiretapping my VoIP for about 8 years, starting about 6 months before a junkie tried to break into my house. The crooks(civil and LEO) want to rob your house while you're away. What better criminal partnership can be had than a crooked cop and a desperate junkie?

In reply to by Urban Roman

any_mouse Bigly Fri, 06/22/2018 - 17:00 Permalink

The FBI will make sure the paperwork matches the desired "facts".

We never want to "inhibit" law enforcement, do we?

We lose our freedoms in order that we can be protected from enemies of the state.

The State is the Enemy.

No more Checks and Balances.

The Constitution has been nullified for a long time.

In reply to by Bigly

lincolnsteffens Cognitive Dissonance Fri, 06/22/2018 - 12:22 Permalink

What about your automobile? Unless you are using your car for commercial purposes, the inside of your car is no different than your home yet there are now tracking devices in your car and it can also be hacked and taken over.

I saw a nice clean Oldsmobile 88 from 1992 and was tempted to buy it but I'd like an old car a little smaller. Just thinking.

In reply to by Cognitive Dissonance

GeezerGeek lincolnsteffens Fri, 06/22/2018 - 14:12 Permalink

Compared to my "intermediate sized" 1974 Dodge Charger that Olds 88 is a "smaller car". I take it you don't need a back seat for adults, or that '88' would be the minimum size. Cars have undergone shrinkflation just like the food we buy. A "full sized" car today is about as big as the trunk of a 1976 El Dorado. The only thing that has gotten bigger over time is the girth of the average American.

In reply to by lincolnsteffens

SilverDOG pods Fri, 06/22/2018 - 14:52 Permalink

I find all the passive complaints in regards to privacy invasion, rather paltry.

We comprehend the absence of privacy and should easily view parameters of regaining.

The necessity of ones phone, is the addiction.

My solutions, leave phone on and at home.

Leave phone in car, and pursue goals.

Turn phone off when not being used.

When truly seeking privacy in GPS signal disabled car, remove phone battery, and place in glove box.

Ok, I hear it now.

"My phone battery can NOT be removed".

Yep, yours by design, equivalent to a tattoo... on your forearm.

The dependency is The ROT.


In reply to by pods

any_mouse pods Fri, 06/22/2018 - 17:20 Permalink

Work was 9 to 5. M - F.

"Work Life balance" was inherent and was not corporate doublespeak.

If 24x7 coverage was needed they hired people to cover the extra shifts.

Electronic slave collars.

The always on location was installed for Enhanced 911 (E911), to provide an accurate location for dispatch of emergency services for our safety.

Data collection was to provide more relevant personalized content.

Creeping, crawling into your life.

In reply to by pods

macholatte helltothenah Fri, 06/22/2018 - 11:53 Permalink


A friend, American Citizen, got hassled by customs in Los Angeles when returning from Australia vacation. They took his cell phone and kept if for about an hour. In the mean time they asked him all sorts of questions about where he went, who he saw, what he did and such. They told him they were going to download his email and contacts and that they didn’t need any kind of warrant and that if he objected they would put him in jail for resisting or some such intimidation tactic.
Welcome home.

Hopefully, this decision will change that situation.


In reply to by helltothenah

Endgame Napoleon tropicthunder Fri, 06/22/2018 - 13:22 Permalink

And yet, with all of that authority to make a mockery of civil liberties in a so-called Republic, they still cannot prevent millions upon millions of welfare-eligible, womb-producing, illegal immigrants from crossing the border to provide a cheap, mostly under-the-table workforce for employers.

Those illegal border crossers can afford to work so cheaply due to free groceries, free rent, monthly cash assistance and refundable child tax credits up to $6,431, when they work part-time in single-earner households with US-born kids to stay under the income limits for welfare in (traceable) earnings.

They just cannot do it; it is too hard to keep illegals from crossing that heavily policed border.

Get ready to take care of your elderly parents in their old age, as illegals continue to receive 100%-free stuff for womb productivity.

Due to all of this welfare-assisted, womb-productive immigration, the US has the largest, youthful, working-age population in history, but they are not working enough hours for the SS retirement fund that you pay into—and that your elderly parents paid into at either 7.65 or 15.3% of every penny earned up to the 128,400 SS taxation cap—to run surpluses anymore.

The Millennials are a [bigger] generation than the Boomers, but they just cannot keep SS solvent due to too few taxable work hours. 

Work no longer pays when you flood the labor market with welfare-assisted laborers.

~ 101 million working-age US citizens out of the workforce—95 million working-age citizens out of the workforce last month;

~ 78 million underemployed gig pieceworkers; 

~ 42 million EBT-eligible citizens and noncitizens defined as “employed,” even though you must work part time in a single-earner, womb-productive household to qualify for anything but the tiniest amount of EBT, much less the other freebies.

I just heard the Big Lie MSM cheering for the “full employment” again, while crying their crocodile tears over illegal immigrants.

If they cared about those children, they would not be lying about the issue, suggesting that most of those children have doting, responsible parents, when 10,000 out of 12,000 of them crossed Mexico and the rape-tree area of the border region unaccompanied by an adult.

They would also be asking why people with children are being targeted by the cartels and why, if that is true, Catholic Charities is not spending the massive vats of money they collect on safe-haven orphanages in Central America.

They are not asking any if it, and they have no idea how little documentation that illegal immigrants have when applying for assistance at government agencies. The caseworkers do NOT know much about them at all; they cannot know since there are no databases to check.

These campaigning reporters do not care about the impact of mass immigration on US citizens anymore than they care about the illegal border crossers.

If they did, they would not be misreporting the mass-scale underemployment in their own country.

Millions of womb-productive, welfare-eligible immigrants who were allowed to sneak over the border with no police violations have lowered wages for non-welfare-eligible US citizens for 40 years.

The excuse for letting this happen, rather than REALLY policing the border, was that womb-productive immigrants were supposed to offset than SS shortfall.

This was the rationale behind paying them layer after layer of welfare —$113 billion per year, just for the womb-productive illegal aliens, not counting the 1.5 million legal immigrants: SS fund solvency.

Not working. 

In reply to by tropicthunder

warsev macholatte Fri, 06/22/2018 - 14:24 Permalink

All this court decision says is that cops need a warrant to obtain historical location information saved by a phone service carrier. It unfortunately DOES NOT say that cops need a warrant for real-time tracking, or for confiscating and searching phones. Better than nothing, though.

In reply to by macholatte

gaoptimize Uchtdorf Fri, 06/22/2018 - 12:20 Permalink

Exactly right.  I don't have a cell phone (inconvenient, but consistent with my fine life since 1960) because I refuse to allow the systematic violation of my 4th Amendment rights by the NSA.  I am calling for all bulk surveillance data obtained without a warrant, in the Utah Data Center or elsewhere, to be dumped.


I don't know who John Roberts is talking to, but you can't see heat through walls at any resolution.  You can, and they do, see human figures well enough for kill shots with WiFi and other RF sources (XBox Kinect), Smart Meter pulses, or ones they can bring with them.

In reply to by Uchtdorf