Can law enforcement acquire historical cell site location data without a warrant?
In 2011, Petitioner Timothy Carpenter was arrested on suspicion of participating in a string of armed robberies in and around Detroit. In the course of the investigation, FBI agents acquired transactional records from Carpenter’s cell phone carrier. The government sought this data pursuant to the Stored Communications Act, which allows law enforcement to obtain communications records by demonstrating “specific and articulable facts” that the records are relevant to an ongoing investigation, rather than probable cause that a crime has been committed. The trial court denied Carpenter’s motion to suppress the records, and a jury convicted him of firearms violations and violations of the Hobbs Act. On appeal, Carpenter maintained that the acquisition of his cellular data without a warrant violated his Fourth Amendment rights, but the Sixth Circuit held that such a seizure did not constitute a “search” under the Fourth Amendment. Carpenter now challenges this classification of cell site data, arguing that the seizure of such data does constitute a search, and that the data is distinct from phone and bank records, which have not been afforded Fourth Amendment protection. This case could have significant consequences for the government’s ability to collect data that reveals a cell phone user’s location.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
Whether the warrantless seizure and search of historical cell phone records revealing the location and movements of a cell phone user over the course of 127 days is permitted by the Fourth Amendment.
In April 2011, police arrested four men suspected of committing multiple armed robberies at Radio Shack and T-Mobile stores in Detroit and its surrounding suburbs. United States v. Carpenter, 819 F.3d 880, 884 (Sixth Circuit 2016). One of the men confessed to FBI agents, telling them that over a four-month period the group had robbed nine stores in Michigan and Ohio.