US Supreme Court upholds Right of Privacy 2018


                                  SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED       STATES No. 16–402

TIMOTHY IVORY CARPENTER, PETITIONER v. UNITED STATES ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SIXTH CIRCUIT [June 22, 2018] CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS delivered the opinion of the Court.


IMPORTANT PARTS OF THE JUDGEMENT  

This case presents the question whether the Government conducts a search under the Fourth Amendment when it accesses historical cell phone records that provide a comprehensive chronicle of the user’s past movements.

The Fourth Amendment protects “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” The “basic purpose of this Amendment,” our cases have recognized, “is to safeguard the privacy and security of individuals against arbitrary invasions by governmental officials.” Camara v. Municipal Court of City and County of San Francisco, 387 U. S. 523, 528 (1967). The Founding generation crafted the Fourth Amendment as a “response to the reviled ‘general warrants’ and ‘writs of assistance’ of the colonial era, which allowed British officers to rummage through homes in an unrestrained search for evidence of criminal activity.” Riley v. California, 573 U. S. ___, ___ (2014) (slip op., at 27)

We have kept this attention to Founding-era understandings in mind when applying the Fourth Amendment to innovations in surveillance tools. As technology has enhanced the Government’s capacity to encroach upon areas normally guarded from inquisitive eyes, this Court has sought to “assure[ ] preservation of that degree of privacy against government that existed when the Fourth Amendment was adopted.” Kyllo v. United States, 533 U. S. 27, 34 (2001). For that reason, we rejected in Kyllo a “mechanical interpretation” of the Fourth Amendment and held that use of a thermal imager to detect heat radiating from the side of the defendant’s home was a search. Id., at 35. Because any other conclusion would leave homeowners “at the mercy of advancing technology,” we determined that the Government—absent a warrant—could not capitalize on such new sense-enhancing technology to explorewhat was happening within the home. Ibid. Likewise in Riley, the Court recognized the “immense storage capacity” of modern cell phones in holding that police officers must generally obtain a warrant before searching the contents of a phone. 573 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 17). We explained that while the general rule allowing warrantless searches incident to arrest “strikes the appropriate balance in the context of physical objects, neither of its rationales has much force with respect to” the vast store of sensitive information on a cell phone. Id., at ___ (slip op., at 9).

 

The case before us involves the Government’s acquisition of wireless carrier cell-site records revealing the location of Carpenter’s cell phone whenever it made or received calls. This sort of digital data—personal location information maintained by a third party—does not fit neatly under existing precedents. Instead, requests for cell-site records lie at the intersection of two lines of cases, both of which inform our understanding of the privacy interests at stake

A person does not surrender all Fourth Amendment protection by venturing into the public sphere. To the contrary, “what [one] seeks to preserve as private, even in an area accessible to the public, may be constitutionally protected.” Katz, 389 U. S., at 351–352. A majority of this Court has already recognized that individuals have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the whole of their physical movements. Jones, 565 U. S., at 430 (ALITO, J., concurring in judgment); id., at 415 (SOTOMAYOR, J., concurring). Prior to the digital age, law enforcement might have pursued a suspect for a brief stretch, but doing so “for any extended period of time was difficult and costly and therefore rarely undertaken.” Id., at 429 (opinion of ALITO, J.). For that reason, “society’s expectation has been that law enforcement agents and others would not— and indeed, in the main, simply could not—secretly monitor and catalogue every single movement of an individual’s car for a very long period.” Id., at 430. Allowing government access to cell-site records contravenes that expectation. Although such records are generated for commercial purposes, that distinction does not negate Carpenter’s anticipation of privacy in his physical location. Mapping a cell phone’s location over the course of 127 days provides an all-encompassing record of the holder’s whereabouts. As with GPS information, the timestamped data provides an intimate window into a person’s life, revealing not only his particular movements, but through them his “familial, political, professional, religious, and sexual associations.” Id., at 415 (opinion of SOTOMAYOR, J.). These location records “hold for many Americans the ‘privacies of life.’” Riley, 573 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 28) (quoting Boyd, 116 U. S., at 630). And like GPS monitoring, cell phone tracking is remarkably easy, cheap, and efficient compared to traditional investigative tools. With just the click of a button, the Government canaccess each carrier’s deep repository of historical location information at practically no expense. In fact, historical cell-site records present even greater privacy concerns than the GPS monitoring of a vehicle we considered in Jones. Unlike the bugged container in Knotts or the car in Jones, a cell phone—almost a “feature of human anatomy,” Riley, 573 U. S., at ___ (slip op., at 9)—tracks nearly exactly the movements of its owner. 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. See id., at ___ (slip op., at 19) (noting that “nearly three-quarters of smart phone users report being within five feet of their phones most of the time, with 12% admitting that they even use their phones in the shower”); contrast Cardwell v. Lewis, 417 U. S. 583, 590 (1974) (plurality opinion) (“A car has little capacity for escaping public scrutiny.”). Accordingly, when the Government tracks the location of a cell phone it achieves near perfect surveillance, as if it had attached an ankle monitor to the phone’s user. Moreover, the retrospective quality of the data here gives police access to a category of information otherwise unknowable. In the past, attempts to reconstruct a person’s movements were limited by a dearth of records and the frailties of recollection. With access to CSLI, the Government can now travel back in time to retrace a person’s whereabouts, subject only to the retention polices of the wireless carriers, which currently maintain records for up to five years. Critically, because location information is continually logged for all of the 400 million devices in the United States—not just those belonging to persons who might happen to come under investigation— this newfound tracking capacity runs against everyone.

As Justice Brandeis explained in his famous dissent, the Court is obligated—as “[s]ubtler and more far-reaching means of invading privacy have become available to the Government”—to ensure that the “progress of science” does not erode Fourth Amendment protections. Olmstead v. United States, 277 U. S. 438, 473–474 (1928). Here the progress of science has afforded law enforcement a powerful new tool to carry out its important responsibilities. At the same time, this tool risks Government encroachment of the sort the Framers, “after consulting the lessons of history,” drafted the Fourth Amendment to prevent. Di Re, 332 U. S., at 595. We decline to grant the state unrestricted access to a wireless carrier’s database of physical location information. In light of the deeply revealing nature of CSLI, its depth, breadth, and comprehensive reach, and the inescapable and automatic nature of its collection, the fact that such information is gathered by a third party does not make it any less deserving of Fourth Amendment protection. The Government’s acquisition of the cell-site records here was a search under that Amendment.

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