Supreme Court rules for Petitioner Carpenter in Carpenter v United States, this is a major victory for the Fourth Amendment

The above is the link to the Opinion of the Court in Carpenter v United States.

Opinion of the Court is by the Chief Justice for a 5 to 4 majority, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan. Justices Kennedy, Thomas, Alito and Gorsuch each write their own separate dissenting opinions, with some joining the others opinions.


  1. The Government’s acquisition of Carpenter’s cell-site records was a Fourth Amendment search. Pp. 4–18.

Carpenter had been tried and convicted for a series of armed robberies and the government had obtained his cell site records from his cell phone provider without a warrant. He was sentenced to over 100 years in prison. His conviction and sentence are overturned by this decision and he will be retried with the illegal cellphone evidence excluded from his trial.

As a civil libertarian and privacy advocate, I agree with this ruling, narrow though it may be. It upholds the Fourth Amendment.

Syllabus of this decision pasted below:

(Note to Mods: As a work of the United States federal government, the following quoted material is in the public domain. Attribution is given to the United States Supreme Court.)

Cell phones perform their wide and growing variety of functions by continuously connecting to a set of radio antennas called “cell sites.”

Each time a phone connects to a cell site, it generates a time-stamped record known as cell-site location information (CSLI). Wireless carriers collect and store this information for their own business purposes. Here, after the FBI identified the cell phone numbers of several robbery suspects, prosecutors were granted court orders to obtain the suspects’ cell phone records under the Stored Communications Act. Wireless carriers produced CSLI for petitioner Timothy Carpenter’s phone, and the Government was able to obtain 12,898 location points cataloging Carpenter’s movements over 127 days—an average of 101 data points per day. Carpenter moved to suppress the data, arguing that the Government’s seizure of the records without obtaining a warrant supported by probable cause violated the Fourth Amendment. The District Court denied the motion, and prosecutors used the records at trial to show that Carpenter’s phone was near four of the robbery locations at the time those robberies occurred. Carpenter was convicted. The Sixth Circuit affirmed, holding that Carpenter lacked a reasonable expectation of privacy in the location information collected by the FBI because he had shared that information with his wireless carriers.


1. The Government’s acquisition of Carpenter’s cell-site records was a Fourth Amendment search. Pp. 4–18.

(a) The Fourth Amendment protects not only property interests but certain expectations of privacy as well. Katz v. United States, 389 U. S. 347, 351. Thus, when an individual “seeks to preserve something as private,” and his expectation of privacy is “one that society is prepared to recognize as reasonable,” official intrusion into that sphere generally qualifies as a search and requires a warrant supported by probable cause. Smith v. Maryland, 442 U. S. 735, 740 (internal quotation marks and alterations omitted). The analysis regarding which expectations of privacy are entitled to protection is informed by historical understandings “of what was deemed an unreasonable search and seizure when [the Fourth Amendment] was adopted.” Carroll v. United States, 267 U. S. 132, 149. These Founding-era understandings continue to inform this Court when applying the Fourth Amendment to innovations in surveillance tools. See, e.g., Kyllo v. United States, 533 U. S. 27. Pp. 4–7.

(b) The digital data at issue—personal location information maintained by a third party—does not fit neatly under existing precedents but lies at the intersection of two lines of cases. One set addresses a person’s expectation of privacy in his physical location and movements. See, e.g., United States v. Jones, 565 U. S. 400 (five Justices concluding that privacy concerns would be raised by GPS tracking). The other addresses a person’s expectation of privacy in information voluntarily turned over to third parties. See United States v. Miller, 425 U. S. 435 (no expectation of privacy in financial records held by a bank), and Smith, 442 U. S. 735 (no expectation of privacy in records of dialed telephone numbers conveyed to telephone company). Pp. 7–10.

© Tracking a person’s past movements through CSLI partakes of many of the qualities of GPS monitoring considered in Jones—it is detailed, encyclopedic, and effortlessly compiled. At the same time, however, the fact that the individual continuously reveals his location to his wireless carrier implicates the third-party principle of Smith and Miller. Given the unique nature of cell-site records, this Court declines to extend Smith and Miller to cover them. Pp. 10–18.

(1) A majority of the Court has already recognized that individuals have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the whole of their physical movements. Allowing government access to cell-site records—which “hold for many Americans the ‘privacies of life,’ ” Riley v. California, 573 U. S. ___, ___—contravenes that expectation. In fact, historical cell-site records present even greater privacy concerns than the GPS monitoring considered in Jones: They give the Government near perfect surveillance and allow it to travel back in time to retrace a person’s whereabouts, subject only to the five-year retention policies of most wireless carriers. The Government contends that CSLI data is less precise than GPS information, but it thought the data accurate enough here to highlight it during closing argument in Carpenter’s trial. At any rate, the rule the Court adopts “must take account of more sophisticated systems that are already in use or in development,” Kyllo, 533 U. S., at 36, and the accuracy of CSLI is rapidly approaching GPS-level precision. Pp. 12–15.

(2) The Government contends that the third-party doctrine governs this case, because cell-site records, like the records in Smith and Miller, are “business records,” created and maintained by wireless carriers. But there is a world of difference between the limited types of personal information addressed in Smith and Miller and the exhaustive chronicle of location information casually collected by wireless carriers.

The third-party doctrine partly stems from the notion that an individual has a reduced expectation of privacy in information knowingly shared with another. Smith and Miller, however, did not rely solely on the act of sharing. They also considered “the nature of the particular documents sought” and limitations on any “legitimate ‘expectation of privacy’ concerning their contents.” Miller, 425 U. S., at 442. In mechanically applying the third-party doctrine to this case the Government fails to appreciate the lack of comparable limitations on the revealing nature of CSLI. Nor does the second rationale for the third-party doctrine—voluntary exposure—hold up when it comes to CSLI. Cell phone location information is not truly “shared” as the term is normally understood. First, cell phones and the services they provide are “such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life” that carrying one is indispensable to participation in modern society. Riley, 573 U. S., at ___. Second, a cell phone logs a cell-site record by dint of its operation, without any affirmative act on the user’s part beyond powering up. Pp. 15–17.

(d) This decision is narrow. It does not express a view on matters not before the Court; does not disturb the application of Smith and Miller or call into question conventional surveillance techniques and tools, such as security cameras; does not address other business records that might incidentally reveal location information; and does not consider other collection techniques involving foreign affairs or national security. Pp. 17–18.

  1. The Government did not obtain a warrant supported by probable cause before acquiring Carpenter’s cell-site records. It acquired those records pursuant to a court order under the Stored Communications Act, which required the Government to show “reasonable grounds” for believing that the records were “relevant and material to an ongoing investigation.” 18 U. S. C. §2703(d). That showing falls well short of the probable cause required for a warrant. Consequently, an order issued under §2703(d) is not a permissible mechanism for accessing historical cell-site records. Not all orders compelling the production of documents will require a showing of probable cause. A warrant is required only in the rare case where the suspect has a legitimate privacy interest in records held by a third party. And even though the Government will generally need a warrant to access CSLI, case-specific exceptions—e.g., exigent circumstances—may support a warrantless search. Pp. 18–22.

819 F. 3d 880, reversed and remanded.

ROBERTS, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which GINSBURG, BREYER, SOTOMAYOR, and KAGAN, JJ., joined. KENNEDY, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which THOMAS and ALITO, JJ., joined. THOMAS, J., filed a dissenting opinion. ALITO, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which THOMAS, J., joined. GORSUCH, J., filed a dissenting opinion.

A ruling that supports freedom. I like it.

That’s impossible. I was told repeatedly here that liberals hate freedom. Which is weird that Ginsburg, Breyer Sotomayor and Kagan agreed with this.

1 Like

I support this decision as well

state and federal lawyers do not get paid unless they have a case. that is why there are so many people in court, the more they are in court the more they make. so americans are the food for the wolf lawyers to make money from the state and fed government. lawyers are the problem in the usa. usa has 3 times more lawyers than all the rest of the world and you wonder why america is in so much termoil! law suits for money for the lawyers pockets and it cost 100,000.00 per inmate to keep them in jail, all paid from taxes from the american public. lawyers do not help people they are there to take your money only, they do not care about there customers other than take there money and run and this was told to me by a lawyer.

I have not absorbed the entire ruling. But I heard that records can still be gathered without warrant in “emergency situations”. I will be interested to learn more about the scope of these situations. Overall I agree with the ruling. We must maintain a certain level of private security in this country.

I’ll need to read the dissenting opinions because I’m wondering in what world would those 4 think that that it would be acceptable to accept evidence without warrant would be acceptable?

For the government to assume they have a right to access information because a consumer agreed to share said information with another specific party is absurd.

This was a good ruling in my opinion.

[quote=“Ray-in-usa, post:5, topic:5133, full:true”]
state and federal lawyers do not get paid unless they have a case. that is why there are so many people in court, the more they are in court the more they make.[/quote]

I believe you fundamentally are wrong on that. State and federal lawyers are paid and annual salary not on a per case basis.

Private sector lawyers bill by the hour so the more cases the more billable hours the more money.


I support it as well. What was Gorsuch & Thomas’ problem?

I believe it is that SCOTUS precedent said that once an individual discloses information to a third party, they have no reasonable right to an expectation of privacy.

If you keep records in you file cabinet at home - that enjoys a reasonable expectation of privacy.

If you have a phone and dial a number through their system, then you have given a 3rd party (i.e. the phone company) information about you (the number that you dialed) and that was then the companies information. The phone company is then the owner of the information - the number you dialed through their system - and if the police approached them to share information, that decision was up to the phone company. They were free to cooperate with law enforcement or they could demand a warrant for the information. But the warrant was based on the phone companies ownership of the data.

IIRC, the new ruling says that the phone company cannot release data voluntarily even though they own the information, that law enforcement must obtain a warrant.

Another example might be if I own a Bed & Breakfast. When you register to stay, your registration is my property not yours. The local Sheriff could stop by and ask to see my guest register and I could freely share it as a law abiding citizen. Under this ruling the Sheriff would now have to get a warrant.

The records of businesses aren’t their own anymore.


Their dissent was based on their desire to revisit the third party rule, and overrule it.

private email? not anymore… your server is the third party, big brother is smiling



I actually agree with this. But I still have another problem…even thou the phone company demands the police to get a warrant for information on any individual the phone company sells that same information.

So maybe the police should just buy it. :wink:

I understand what you’re saying and I don’t disagree. But the way I see it they’re my records too. The police should have to get a warrant and they shouldn’t be able to sell them without my permission.

I think the court understands that with cell phones being pretty much mandatory items this day and the fact that cell phones effectively document their owner’s movements, that there must be a bright line drawn. If government can freely obtain cell phone records, they can literally track our every move.

What do you think about what WorldWatcher said?

I think he makes a good point. Companies are under increasingly strict rules how and whether they can disclose certain information to authorities without a warrant.

Does this infringe on the company’s property rights?

Insomuch that it only effects company disclosures to the government, I don’t believe company property rights in the records are adversely effected.