Carpenter v. United States

In his dissent in Carpenter v. United States, 138 S. Ct. 2206 (2018), Justice Kennedy observed that “the Cyber Age has vast potential both to expand and restrict individual freedoms in dimensions not contemplated in earlier times.” Justice Kennedy worried that the ruling, which held that a warrant is generally required for police to access cell site location information, would hamstring law enforcement by “transform[ing]” prior precedent into “an unprincipled and unworkable doctrine.” The Carpenter majority insisted, however, that its June 2018 decision was “a narrow one.” Future decisions will determine how far Carpenter will in fact reach, but recent decisions from the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the Second and Seventh Circuits demonstrate one important limit: the “good faith” exception to the exclusionary rule. While acknowledging Carpenter’s holding, both courts rejected the respective defendant-appellants’ appeals of suppression motion denials relating to searches predating Carpenter based on that exception.

Most recently, in United States v. Curtis, No. 17-1833, 2018 WL 4042631 (7th Cir. Aug. 24, 2018), the Seventh Circuit held that “even though it is now established that the Fourth Amendment requires a warrant for the type of cell-phone data present [t]here, exclusion of that information was not required because it was collected in good faith.” In Curtis, the appellant challenged the district court’s denial of his motion to suppress cell phone location information collected pursuant to the Stored Communications Act (SCA). Mr. Curtis did not dispute that the government had complied with the SCA, but argued he had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the location information and thus a search warrant was required. The district court denied the motion and permitted the location information to be offered as evidence, and Mr. Curtis was convicted of various crimes.

On appeal, the Seventh Circuit agreed that, per Carpenter, a warrant was required for the information, but that the Supreme Court “has not spoken to what should happen next.” According to the Curtis court, the answer was clear: the evidence did not have to be excluded because it was obtained in good-faith reliance on pre-Carpenter precedent.

Continue Reading Federal Appeals courts decline to exclude cell phone location information collected without warrants pre-Carpenter, but Carpenter’s future impact still unclear

On November 29, many interested audience members packed into the Supreme Court to witness oral argument on the issue of whether the Fourth Amendment demands that the government obtain a warrant in order to acquire long-term, cell-site location information (CSLI) from wireless service providers, in what could be one of the most influential privacy decisions of this generation: Carpenter v. United States.

In the wake of a string of armed robberies at electronic retail stores in the Detroit area in 2011, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) obtained orders pursuant to the Stored Communications Act (SCA) requesting “transactional records” from wireless service providers, including CSLI pertaining to the call origination and termination of the arrested suspects’ phone numbers. Under the SCA, the government may require disclosure of such records upon a finding of “specific and articulable facts” that “there are reasonable grounds to believe that the contents of a wire or electronic communication, or the records or other information sought, are relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation.” 18 U.S.C. 2703(d). Defendant Timothy Carpenter moved to suppress the government’s cell-site evidence before trial, claiming the government obtaining CSLI from his wireless service provider constituted a warrantless search in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The district court denied the motion, the Sixth Circuit affirmed, and the Supreme Court granted certiorari last June.

Continue Reading Nation on Hold for Supreme Court Carpenter v. United States Decision