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Search Warrant Needed to Track Cell Phones


Advancements in technology usually outpace law enforcement efforts to use those advancements to further cases and track down suspects. One such advancement and issue is cell phone tracking technology. From the “Find my iPhone” feature of Apple products to third party tracking capabilities to location tracking from cell phone towers, there has been a lot of contention over the legality of tracking an individual under through their cell phone records without a search warrant. The United States Supreme Court has made a ruling regarding using cell phone records to track a suspect’s movement without a search warrant.

Supreme Court Ruling

In Carpenter v. United States, the Court ruled that, in general, law enforcement must first obtain a search warrant before they are able to track a suspect through their cell phone records that pinpoint the suspect’s general location. Timothy Carpenter was convicted of numerous armed robberies. In gathering evidence against Carpenter, the police used cell phone location records to track his whereabouts for 127 days. Using this information on Carpenter’s whereabouts, the police were able to put him in the area around each of the robbery incidents.

At issue in this case was whether or not using cell phone location records without a search warrant was an invasion of a person’s Fourth Amendment rights to privacy. The Court ultimately ruled that in order to use cell phone location data, law enforcement must first secure a judge-approved search warrant.

In making this ruling, the court used the “third-party doctrine.” The doctrine is based on the idea that when an individual is giving their information, voluntarily, to a third party, there is no reasonable expectation of privacy to be had. The Court held that the doctrine does not apply to cell phone location records. In making this decision, the Court made sure to note that this decision is only for cellphone tracking data. It is not to be used in relation to other records, such as business records that are held by banks. Additionally, the opinion states that in an emergency situation law enforcement is able to respond and get access to records without a search warrant.

This case is a victory for right to privacy advocates. This is also not the first time that the Court has upheld privacy rights as they related to advancements in technology. In two separate court cases, the Court held that a GPS tracking device cannot be attached to a suspect’s car and the police must have a search warrant in order to search the cellphone of an arrested individual.

Contact Us Today for Help

The right to privacy is a fundamental principle in this country. The North Carolina legal team at Hauter Law Firm, PC is dedicated to making sure that any criminal charge you are facing does not encroach on your constitutionally protected rights. Attorney Hauter uses every possible defense under the circumstances, including a violation of the right to privacy, to zealously defend you. Your rights should not be violated in an effort for law enforcement to charge you with a crime. Contact us today for a consultation.


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