On Friday, the Supreme Court issued a long-awaited opinion in Carpenter v. United States. The Court held that when law enforcement obtains long-term cell site location information from a suspect’s service provider, it conducts a Fourth Amendment search that normally requires a warrant. Although the majority opinion states that it “is a narrow one,” the dissenting Justices and some scholars see it as a seismic shift that may have many aftershocks. I’ll summarize the case and then use former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s famous approach to address the “known knowns,” the “known unknowns,” and the “unknown unknowns” after Carpenter.
The Court of Appeals of North Carolina recently decided a case about police obtaining real-time location information from a suspect’s cellular service provider. The case does not address the principal controversy concerning such information. Nonetheless, it provides a good refresher on the issue and marks a good time for an update on the national controversy about this issue.
It’s not Thursday, but I’m going to throw it back a few years to 2014. Like the rest of the nerds I know, I became obsessed that year with the podcast Serial. The first season of that podcast chronicled the prosecution of Adnan Syed for the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. Host Sarah Koenig meticulously sifted through the evidence and conducted goodness-knows-how-many interviews with everyone connected to the case, including numerous recorded interviews with Syed, who is serving a life sentence in a Maryland prison. Syed claims that he did not kill Lee, whose body was discovered six weeks after she disappeared buried in a Baltimore park. Koenig spends the first several episodes of the podcast describing inconsistencies in witness’s accounts of the day Lee disappeared—inconsistencies that raise doubts about Syed’s guilt. But in episode five, Koenig, with the help of her producer, analyzes the evidence that the State offered regarding which cell towers serviced calls to Syed’s phone during the time that one of Syed’s friends claimed Syed was burying Lee’s body. The producer concludes:
“I think they were probably in [the park] . . . Because . . . the amount of luck that you would have to have to make up a story like that and then have the cell phone records corroborate those key points, I just don’t think that that’s possible.”
On Tuesday, the Eleventh Circuit ruled, en banc, that law enforcement may obtain historical cell site location information without a search warrant, using a court order based on less than probable cause. There’s a controversy over what legal standard should govern law enforcement access to location information, and the Eleventh Circuit’s ruling is likely to be influential in the debate. This post explains the issue and puts the new decision in context.
This weekend, the Charlotte Observer ran this article, entitled Charlotte Police Investigators Secretly Track Cellphones. The article concerns the use of so-called stingrays, also known as IMSI catchers or cell site simulators. They are machines that simulate cell towers and connect with the cellular telephones located nearby. Officers frequently use them to triangulate the location of a suspect – or more precisely, the location of a suspect’s phone. There’s a controversy about the legal status of these devices, which I’ll summarize in this post.
I wrote here about how law enforcement officers may obtain historical information about the location of a suspect’s cellular phone. There have been several developments in the law since then, including earlier this week when the Fifth Circuit rendered its decision in In re Application of the United States of America for Historical Cell Site … Read more
I’ve had several questions lately about the authority of law enforcement to track a suspect by obtaining information about contacts between the suspect’s cellular telephone and cellular towers. I’m also going to be teaching about some related issues in the near future. So I’ve prepared a short summary of the law in this area, which … Read more