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Can I be tracked through my cellphone without a warrant?

Technology and access to information often advances faster than the law. In many cases, this means law enforcement may be using your cellphone information against you, even if it may not be constitutional to do so. However, a new case before the U.S. Supreme Court could change that.

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear oral arguments in Carpenter v. United States. The case addresses the issue of police obtaining the cellphone location information, which is regularly collected and stored by the wireless provider, of suspects. The central question of the case is whether or not the police are required to get a search warrant to gain access to this information and how far the privacy protection guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment extends to cellphone data.

Timothy Carpenter’s lawyer Nathan Freed Wessler with the American Civil Liberties Union argues that law enforcement are “rewinding someone’s life” by accessing location history and that the government has never previously had the right to do so.

This will not be the Supreme Court’s first ruling on cellphone use and the Fourth Amendment. In 2014, the high court ruled unanimously in Riley v. California that law enforcement is required to obtain a warrant prior to searching digital information on a cellphone seized during an arrest.

What does this mean for me and my cellphone?

For now, this means that if you are arrested and officers seize your phone, they must have a warrant to search your phone before doing so, and anything they find without a warrant is inadmissible.

If they use the location information stored by your cellphone provider, the case could eventually be overturned if the Supreme Court rules in Carpenter’s favor. However, even if a unanimous decision were to be reached in Carpenter’s favor, the court may decide to wait until the end of its term – typically in late June or early July – to deliver the opinion. And there is always the possibility they will not rule in his favor. It would not be wise to rely on the opinion in this case until it has been officially determined.

Until then, if you are arrested through the use of location information from your cellphone, talk to an attorney who can work with you through all of your options.

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Thomas G. Fallis, P.A.
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