A legal organization that advocates for constitutional freedom is watching a 4th Amendment case currently being reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The case is Carpenter v. The United States, which reached the court from the 6th U.S. Court of Appeals.
The case involves a gang of armed robbers who were tracked by authorities after one of the robbers confessed to the crime and gave up his cell phone number and the numbers of his accomplices. Using cell phone data, authorities analyzed the usage history to trace their movements for 127 days, a Washington Post story explained.
Curt Levey of the Committee for Justice says long before cell phones came into being, court rulings would suggest the police can monitor phone movements. That doesn't apply now, he insists.
“I think that would be a very bad interpretation when applied to today's technology,” says Levey, “because the government might as well put a GPS device on your car and the Supreme Court has said the government can't do that without a warrant.”
In the Washington Post story, criminal law professor Orin Kerr summarized the two questions presented to the high court:
I gather, then, that the case will consider two distinct questions. First, is the collection of the records a Fourth Amendment search? And second, if it is a search, is it a search that requires a warrant?
The government argues cell phone owners opt in to third-party police access when they sign a contract with the company. Most of the data came from provider MetroPCS while some "roaming" data came from Sprint.
But Levey doesn't agree.
“You're really not consenting to anything when you use it,” he says, “and to say that by using a cell phone you have to give up all your Fourth Amendment rights, it would result in a government too powerful and too intrusive for my taste, and I think the taste of most Americans.”
In taking up the case, he adds, the Supreme Court can update old rulings based on modern technology and determine whether police can have access to the information without a warrant or not.
Kerr described the SCOTUS review as a "momentous development" because the future of surveillance law hinges on the coming ruling.