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.