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 him 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 said in a separate case that police need a warrant to search the cellphone of someone arrested.
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. and will be heard in the term that starts in October.