WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court on Friday put new restraints on law enforcement's access to the ever-increasing amount of confidential information about Americans, siding with privacy advocates over law enforcement in a major decision for the digital age.
The justices ruled that authorities generally must obtain a warrant to gain access to cell tower records that can provide a virtual timeline and map of a person's whereabouts - information that is "detailed, encyclopedic, and effortlessly compiled," in the words of Chief Justice John Roberts Jr.
While he described the ruling as narrowly focused on the cell tower information at issue, the reasoning that he and the court's liberals adopted in the 5-to-4 decision lends itself to protection of other forms of records and data a person compiles in daily modern life.
"This is a groundbreaking victory for privacy rights in the digital age," said Carol Rose, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, adding that it "provides a framework for safeguarding other sensitive digital information - from our emails and smart home appliances to technology that is yet to be invented."
Former prosecutors and the four dissenting justices said the ruling threatens to put off-limits to police and prosecutors a major tool used in developing investigations.
Justice Samuel Alito Jr., one of two former prosecutors on the court, said the ruling "guarantees a blizzard of litigation while threatening many legitimate and valuable investigative practices upon which law enforcement has rightfully come to rely."
Edward McAndrew, a Washington lawyer and former federal cybercrimes prosecutor, predicted a "monumental impact" from the ruling.
"Cell site information is often gathered earlier in an investigation," McAndrew said. "It's one of the building blocks to establish probable cause and support obtaining things like search warrants and, eventually, charges."
Roberts did not disagree but said constitutional protections against unlawful searches and seizures enshrined in the Fourth Amendment must be applied to evolving technology.
"Here the progress of science has afforded law enforcement a powerful new tool to carry out its important responsibilities," he wrote. "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."
An FBI spokesman said the bureau is "working with the Department of Justice to assess the impact of the ruling."
The justices ruled for Timothy Carpenter, who is serving a 116-year sentence for his role in armed robberies in 2010 and 2011 at RadioShack and T-Mobile stores in and around Detroit. He was accused of being the ringleader of a gang stealing smartphones.
One of the men arrested said Carpenter typically organized the robberies, supplied the guns and acted as a lookout. Authorities asked his cellphone carrier for 127 days of records that would show Carpenter's use of his phone.
Such records indicate where a cellphone establishes connections with a specific cell tower and give a fair representation of the vicinity of the user. In Carpenter's case, the mass of information showed his phone at 12,898 locations, including close to the sites of the robberies at the times they took place.
Carpenter's attorneys said that the prosecutors' actions violated their client's Fourth Amendment search-and-seizure claims. Authorities should have had to convince a judge that there was probable cause to get the records, they said.
The Justice Department, however, cited the Stored Communications Act, in which authorities had only to meet a lesser standard: that there were "reasonable grounds to believe" that the records sought "are relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation."
The majority's view that a warrant is needed to get the records from a third party - Carpenter's cellphone carrier - is a notable departure from some of the court's past decisions.
"Given the unique nature of cellphone location information, the fact that the government obtained the information from a third party does not overcome Carpenter's claim to Fourth Amendment protection," Roberts wrote.
Mapping a cellphone's location is like attaching a GPS device to a person, Roberts wrote, providing "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.' "
He was quoting in part a previous opinion of Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who helped form the majority along with fellow liberals Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.
Prosecutors contended that in obtaining Carpenter's cellphone data without a warrant, their actions fit squarely with the Supreme Court's prevailing precedents. In the 1979 decision in Smith v. Maryland, the court ruled that requesting records that showed the numbers called from a home phone did not constitute what would be considered a "search" under the Fourth Amendment.
Because the caller's information was voluntarily transmitted to a third party - the telephone company - the caller had no reasonable expectation that the numbers called would remain private.
But the court in recent years has shown more adaptation to new technology.
In 2014, it said a warrant was needed to search a person's cellphone.
"Modern cellphones are not just another technological convenience," Roberts wrote for the court at the time. "They could just as easily be called cameras, video players, Rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps or newspapers."
Two years earlier, the court ruled against law enforcement after authorities attached a GPS device to a suspect's car and tracked his movements for 28 days.
To limit Friday's ruling, Roberts said there could be some warrantless release of cell tower records in real-time situation such as bomb threats, active shootings and child abductions.
Additionally, the ruling doesn't "call into question conventional surveillance techniques and tools, such as security cameras," he wrote.
Not does it cover "other collection techniques involving foreign affairs or national security."
But the four dissenting justices - Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch and Alito - said it did plenty.
Kennedy pointed out it was a serious departure from the court's previous holdings about records held by third parties. He pointed out the government may use a subpoena - rather than a harder-to-obtain warrant - to obtain bank records, telephone records and credit card statement as investigative tools.
"The troves of intimate information the government can and does obtain using financial records and telephone records dwarfs what can be gathered from cell-site records," Kennedy wrote.
So he said it makes no sense for the court to make an exception in this case, since "cell-site records are uniquely suited to help the government develop probable cause to apprehend some of the nation's most dangerous criminals: serial killers, rapists, arsonists, robbers, and so forth."
Alito said the majority's "desire to make a statement about privacy in the digital age" was misdirected.
"Some of the greatest threats to individual privacy may come from powerful private companies that collect and sometimes misuse vast quantities of data about the lives of ordinary Americans," he wrote. "If today's decision encourages the public to think that this court can protect them from this looming threat to their privacy, the decision will mislead as well as disrupt."
The case is Carpenter v. U.S.
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The Washington Post's Justin Jouvenal, Devlin Barrett and Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.
WASHINGTON - Days after yielding to pressure to reverse his policy of separating migrant families at the southern border, President Donald Trump on Friday returned to the nativist rhetoric that animated his outsider presidential campaign, casting immigrants as threats to "our citizens."
Seeking to counter the intense criticism of his border policies, Trump invited to the White House families of Americans killed by immigrants in the country illegally to tell their stories of being "permanently separated" from loved ones.
"These are the stories that Democrats and people that are weak on immigration, they don't want to discuss, they don't want to hear, they don't want to see, they don't want to talk about," Trump said.
Trump and many of the family members who spoke criticized what they called one-sided media coverage that does not focus on their stories.
"My separation is permanent," said a distraught mother, Michelle Wilson-Root, whose daughter Sarah Root was killed in 2016 by a person in the country illegally who was allegedly driving drunk. "Sarah is never coming home."
Neither Trump nor the family members directly mentioned the policy he reversed Wednesday to remove children from their parents indefinitely if the family crosses the border illegally.
But the entire event was an attempt to shift attention from the plight of traumatized children and what Trump and some close advisers consider misplaced sympathy.
"We weren't lucky enough to be separated for five days or 10 days; we're separated permanently," said Laura Wilkerson, whose son Josh was killed in 2010. "Any time we want to see or be close to our kids, we go to the cemetery because that's where they are. We could never speak to them, we can't Skype with them."
The president blamed Democrats for what he called weak immigration laws and policies that treat those in the county illegally too leniently. He railed against the MS-13 gang, heroin from outside the United States, and so called "catch and release" immigration enforcement.
He cited statistics, some discredited, about the amount of crime committed by undocumented immigrants.
"I always hear that, 'Oh, no, the population's safer than the people that live in the country," Trump said, referring to statistical evidence he rejects that shows those in the country illegally commit crime at a lower rate than legal residents.
"You've heard that, fellas, right? You've heard that. I hear it so much, and I say, 'Is that possible?'" Trump said. "The answer is it's not true. You hear it's like they're better people than what we have, than our citizens. It's not true."
Also Friday, Trump said that Republicans should stop "wasting their time" on immigration, suggesting they put off efforts to pass legislation until after the November elections, when he predicted more GOP members of Congress will be elected.
Trump's comments, in a morning tweet, came after Republican House leaders abruptly postponed a vote Thursday on a broad immigration bill intended to unite GOP moderates and conservatives, acknowledging they lack the votes to pass the measure despite the growing uproar over separating migrant families at the border.
Trump's tweet, GOP aides said, could make the task of corralling votes for the bill significantly more difficult heading into the weekend, though House Republican leaders said negotiations would continue.
"Republicans should stop wasting their time on Immigration until after we elect more Senators and Congressmen/women in November," Trump wrote. "Dems are just playing games, have no intention of doing anything to solves this decades old problem. We can pass great legislation after the Red Wave!"
The two immigration bills under consideration in the House this week sought to respond to a pair of brewing crises precipitated by Trump: his decision to separate migrant children from their families at the southwest border, and his cancellation of a program protecting young undocumented immigrants from deportation.
Trump has repeatedly claimed falsely that the crisis at the border - which stemmed from his administration's new "zero tolerance" policy - was the fault of Democrats.
In a later tweet, Trump also accused Democrats of telling "phony stories of sadness and grief" to help gain the upper hand in this year's elections.
Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., said Trump was "expressing his frustration" at a lack of Democratic involvement on the issue and that efforts will continue to find enough votes to pass a bill. But Scalise acknowledged it will be "an uphill fight."
"We're going to move forward," he said. "We're going to have a vote. . . . It would be nice if you had at least one Democrat who was willing to vote for a bill that secures America's border, and so far none have been willing to do that."
Responding to Trump's latest tweets, Democrats - who are optimistic they will pick up seats in both chambers of Congress in November - said it was Trump who is standing in the way of immigration reform and trying to create a political issue. They have expressed frustration that the Republican bills were crafted without their input.
GOP House leaders said Thursday that they would delay until next week a vote on a bill that would provide $25 billion for Trump's long-sought border wall, offer a pathway to citizenship to young undocumented immigrants known as "dreamers" and keep migrant families together in detention centers.
Earlier in the day, the House rejected a hard-line measure that would have significantly limited legal immigration and given dreamers only an uncertain reprieve. Trump had said he supported both bills, frustrating some GOP lawmakers who wanted clearer direction and more vocal leadership from the president.
Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., a member of the whip team in the House, said Trump could make a difference in passing legislation if he were more emphatic about what he wants.
"If the president said to a given bill, 'That's my bill, that's the one I want,' I think that would have a pretty significant impact on our discussions," Byrne said. "But he hasn't done that yet. and so we're continuing to work without that."
Despite the GOP leadership's vows to fight on, some Republicans were openly skeptical about their ability to achieve success in the wake of Trump's latest tweets.
"Game over," Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., said during an interview on CNN. "It takes the wind out of the sails in what might have been a fairly productive week in terms of looking for compromise. I don't know how it happens, because if you look at how contentious this issue is, how much emotion there is, without the president being out front - without the president having legislators' backs - there's no way they're going to take the risks that would be inherent in a major reform bill."
GOP aides were more cautious in their assessment. The chances of a bill passing are "not good, and worse with the POTUS tweets," said one aide who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the sensitive issue. Another said Trump would be to blame if legislation fails.
Friday was the second day in a row that Trump's tweets served to undermine House GOP efforts. On Thursday, he sent a morning tweet questioning the purpose of passing a Republican-backed bill in the House that Democrats could kill in the Senate, using the chamber's filibuster rule.
But, as of 4 p.m. on Thursday, Trump was still making calls to Capitol Hill and demanding that the House pass a bill. Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., relayed that message to House Republicans, which factored into their decision to continue negotiations on legislation into next week.
The president seemed to counsel a far different course on Friday morning, suggesting immigration would be a defining issue in the midterm elections.
"Elect more Republicans in November and we will pass the finest, fairest and most comprehensive Immigration Bills anywhere in the world," Trump wrote on Twitter on Friday. "Right now we have the dumbest and the worst. Dems are doing nothing but Obstructing. Remember their motto, RESIST! Ours is PRODUCE!"
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The Washington Post's Erica Werner, Sean Sullivan and Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.