Police Need Warrant for Cellphone Location Data, Supreme Court Rules

from The Wall Street Journal,

Decision sets privacy boundaries in the digital age.

Police must get a search warrant before obtaining data showing the location of cellphone users, the Supreme Court ruled Friday, the third in a string of decisions that limit law enforcement’s access to the most intimate details of citizens’ digital lives. “When the government tracks the location of a cell phone it achieves near perfect surveillance, as if it had attached an ankle monitor to the phone’s user,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the 5-4 opinion.

The court’s recent consensus collapsed in Friday’s case. Conservative justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch filed four separate dissents, sometimes joining each other. Chief Justice Roberts found support only from the court’s liberal wing, relying on justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan for his majority. In their dissents, the other conservative justices criticized the majority for drawing a dividing line from decades of high-court precedent that had permitted police to obtain an individual’s business records from banks and other companies, on the assumption that the suspect had waived his privacy rights by voluntarily disclosing information to a third party. Cell-site records “are no different from the many other kinds of business records the government has a lawful right to obtain by compulsory process,” Justice Kennedy wrote in a dissent joined by justices Thomas and Alito. He accused the majority of undermining precedents that police have relied on to obtain evidence. Justice Gorsuch, the court’s newest member, took a different tack in his dissent, saying he agreed stronger privacy protections were in order, but not in the way the court provided them. Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented Mr. Carpenter at the high court, called the decision “a truly historic vindication of privacy rights.”

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