Privacy rights and cellphone use: Supreme Court agrees to clarify

Cellphones gather lots of information about the user. How much of that information can police access during the course of an investigation?

Cellphones are more than just phones. These devices can help provide directions to destinations and access to social media while still providing for communication through the use of basic telephone calls or texting. These small, handheld devices often save a record of the various conversations, sites and other things it was used for as well as where it has been located. This record has resulted in questions about privacy. Is the information held within the phone private, or can it be accessed in the event of a criminal investigation?

This question is not new. Courts have struggled with the issue in previous cases and will likely continue to refine the handling of this issue in the future. Currently, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) has agreed to provide some clarification on the use of location information involving these devices.

Facts of the case: Carpenter v. United States

The case provides a bit of irony, as the man facing the accusation of committing numerous armed robberies was allegedly stealing new smartphones. Data from his own cellphone was used to build the case.

The government gathered this information based on a court order granting the search of the accused's phone. The government's request for the order was based on the Stored Communications Act. This law essentially allows for phone companies to provide the government this information in the event the government can provide "specific and articulable facts showing that there are reasonable grounds to believe" that the information that will result from the search of the records is connected to an ongoing investigation. The government used this information to verify that the accused was in the location at the time of the robberies, further supporting their case.

It is important to clarify that the location evidence was gathered via a court order as opposed to a warrant. A warrant requires the officials to meet more requirements before granting the request.

To support the need for only a court order, the government argued that the information used was gathered during the ordinary course of business. The cellphone company in this case was gathering location information in order to determine if improvements to service offerings were needed. The information that was gathered by the government only included location; it did not include the content of the phone calls. The accused counters that this still rises to meet the definition of a search. As such, a warrant would likely be required. Since the information was gathered without a warrant, the accused contends that the evidence should be thrown out.

Although it is difficult to determine how SCOTUS will rule, a recent decision appears to support the argument that a decision in favor of privacy is likely. The decision, Riley v. California from 2014, involved police gathering information from the cellphone of an arrested individual. Ultimately, the court held that a warrant was generally required in order to search the arrested individual's phone.

Any holding from SCOTUS is applicable throughout the country. As a result, this ruling will likely impact similar cases in every state. The case also provides an example of the importance of experienced legal counsel when charged with a crime. The law often changes and an experienced attorney can better ensure that your defense reflects these changes.