WASHINGTON – The US Supreme Court ruled on Friday in favor of privacy advocates by considering that authorities must in most cases obtain a warrant to obtain users’ location data from cell-phone companies.
By a 5-4 vote, the justices struck down a lower court’s ruling that said the police did not need a warrant to ask a wireless provider to hand over cell phone records in an investigation.
The justices debated whether cell phone records, which include data like users’ locations, are covered by the US Constitution’s Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure.
The plaintiff in the case was Timothy Carpenter, who was arrested in April 2011 for several armed robberies in Detroit.
Carpenter was sentenced to 116 years in prison, as he was considered to be the mastermind of a group of thieves and the person responsible for purchasing firearms for the group.
Prosecutors had asked Carpenter’s wireless provider to hand over his cell phone records, which allowed them to follow his location during 127 days and determine that he was near the stores that were robbed.
The Supreme Court ruling, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, sides with Carpenter and declines “to grant the state unrestricted access to a wireless carrier’s database of physical location information.”
According to the ruling, the government will generally need a warrant to obtain cell phone records, although some exceptions are possible, as when a suspect is on the run or is putting others in danger.