The Supreme Court will decide next term whether law enforcement authorities need a warrant to track suspects through their cellphone records, the justices announced Monday.
The decision to accept the case involving cellphone tower records comes after lower courts have said that decades-old privacy rulings by the Supreme Court may need to be updated to account for society’s reliance on rapidly changing technology.
The case involves a convicted robber named Timothy Carpenter, who was found guilty partly on the basis of months of cellphone location records turned over without a warrant.
“Because cellphone location records can reveal countless private details of our lives, police should only be able to access them by getting a warrant based on probable cause,” said Nathan Freed Wessler, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer representing Carpenter. “The time has come for the Supreme Court to make clear that the long-standing protections of the Fourth Amendment apply with undiminished force to these kinds of sensitive digital records.”
Investigating a string of armed robberies in the Midwest in 2010 and 2011, a prosecutor sought access to more than five months of cellphone location records for Carpenter, his lawyers said.
Law enforcement officials did not seek warrants based on probable cause but asked for the records under the Stored Communications Act, which has a lower standard. According to Carpenter’s lawyers, such a request may be granted when the government has “reasonable grounds to believe that” the records sought “are relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation.”
Carpenter was convicted of six robberies after cellphone tower records showed that he was in the vicinity at the time of the crimes. The information did not reveal the content of his conversations.
On appeal, a divided three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit said that no warrants were needed for the records because Carpenter “had no reasonable expectation of privacy in cellphone location records held by his service provider.”
The Supreme Court in the 1970s ruled that a robbery suspect could not shield the numbers he dialed from his phone because he had turned the information over to a third party, namely the phone company.
But the Supreme Court in recent years has expressed more concern about how technology affects privacy. The court ruled in favor of a convicted drug dealer whose movements were tracked via GPS, and it said in a separate case that police need a warrant to search the cellphone of an arrested person.
Modern cellphones “hold for many Americans the privacies of life,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for a united court. “The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought.”
The Justice Department had asked the court not to accept the case, saying Carpenter had not shown that his Fourth Amendment rights were violated.
The case is Carpenter v. U.S.; it is to be heard in the term that starts in October.
The Supreme Court once again affirmed that North Carolina’s redistricting efforts were unduly and improperly influenced by race.
Without comment or noted dissent, the justices on Monday upheld a lower-court ruling that struck down 28 state House and Senate districts. But in a separate order, the court rejected the lower court’s ruling that new elections had to be held in 2017 and sent the case back to reconsider the remedy.
It was the third time this term that the court has weighed in on the fierce political fighting in North Carolina. The court earlier decided not to revive a rewrite of the state’s election laws that a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit said aimed to dilute the impact of African American voters.
And the court has ruled that two of the state’s congressional districts were improperly drawn to pack black voters into them and make surrounding districts more white.
The same claim was made about legislative districts. Republicans controlled the process in 2011, and challengers claim that their efforts have resulted in the current lopsided majorities for the GOP in both houses.
A panel of three federal judges in North Carolina struck down the legislative districts as the product of illegal racial gerrymandering and later ordered the drawing of new districts in time for special elections this year.
The court acknowledged that the action was unusual — voters had just been to the polls in November — but said that although “special elections have costs, those costs pale in comparison to the injury caused by allowing citizens to continue to be represented by legislators elected pursuant to a racial gerrymander.”
But the Supreme Court blocked the order to draw new districts and, in the unsigned order Monday, agreed with the state that the lower court “failed to meaningfully weigh any equitable considerations.”
Both sides in North Carolina claimed victory.
“Whether the election is November 2018 or earlier, redrawing the districts is good for our democracy by leveling the playing field for free and fair elections,” said Roy Cooper, the state’s new Democratic governor.
The state’s Republican legislative leaders said they were pleased that the justices “unanimously rejected the lower court’s politically motivated attempt to force a special legislative election in 2017.”
Redrawing the districts could be critical to whether the Republicans hold on to their veto-proof majorities in both legislative houses.
The decisions came in two separate cases called North Carolina v. Covington.