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SCOTUS provides guidance on when cops can use evidence from cellphones

On Behalf of | Sep 27, 2018 | Criminal Defense

Over the last decade cellphones have evolved from a luxury to an essential part of our everyday life. It is rare that a person does not have a cellphone at all times. This device accompanies us as we drive to work, throughout our workday and often serves as our alarm clock to help us wake up and start the next day.

In addition to helping ease our everyday life, these devices are constantly gathering data on our actions. These devices store information on where we eat, who we call, what websites we frequent and even where we travel every single day. When can police officers use this information to support criminal charges? That is a question recently addressed by the highest court in our country.

Supreme Court of the United States takes on cellphone case

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) agreed to hear a case that addresses one specific area of this line of questioning. The issue: when can enforcement officers use location data gathered by a cellphone company as evidence to support criminal charges?

The issue stems from the prosecution of a man accused of robbery. Prosecutors received court orders under the Stored Communications Act to gather cellphone records to support their case. This law allows for the gathering of such evidence when it “offers specific and articulable facts showing that there are reasonable grounds to believe” the records “are relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation.” This data was used to establish the accused was in the location of the robberies at the time the robberies occurred. The accused moved to suppress this data as it was obtained without a warrant. If successful, the prosecution would have needed to establish probable cause to get a warrant to gather this data – a much higher threshold then the “reasonable grounds” required by the Stored Communications Act.

The correct threshold depends on whether the prosecution’s request rises to a Fourth Amendment search. A Fourth Amendment search is, essentially, a search that would invade the accused’s expectation of privacy. SCOTUS has grappled with reasonable expectations of privacy when it comes to cellphone use and, over four decades ago, outlined the “third-party doctrine.” This legal doctrine essentially states the Fourth Amendment does not protect records or information voluntarily shared with another party. In this case, SCOTUS recognized times have changed. In the past, the court ruled police could gather information about those who travel on public roads. Now, the court recognizes the information gathered by cell-site records requested in this case are akin to business records. As such, they are subject to a higher threshold.

Protection of cellphone data only applies in specific situations

The court notes the application of this holding as a narrow one. Although the holding of this case applies to similar cases throughout the country, an individual facing charges cannot presume his or her cellphone records will remain private. In certain situations, the prosecution could use these records, in others they cannot. Determining which situation applies to your case is one that will require careful review of previous cases and changes in the law.