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Can police use cellphone location data without a warrant? Supreme Court ruling could have wide impact

A Supreme Court case centering around a piece of technology that most of us have in hand's reach has the potential to transform privacy law in the digital age. John Yang sits down with Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal to explain the details and the potential effects of the case.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    But first, The Supreme Court heard arguments today in a major case at the intersection of new technology, the Constitution and privacy rights.

    For that, John Yang has more.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, the case centers around something most of us probably have within arm's reach right now, a smartphone.

    And it has the potential to transform privacy law in the digital age.

    We're joined by Marcia Coyle, the chief Washington correspondent for "The National Law Journal. Marcia was at the court for today's oral arguments.

    Thanks for coming in.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    My pleasure.

  • John Yang:

    This case is Carpenter vs. the United States.

  • Marcia Coyle:


  • John Yang:

    Who is Carpenter and how did his case get to the Supreme Court?

  • Marcia Coyle:


    Timothy Carpenter was arrested back in 2011 and convicted for a string of robberies of RadioShacks and some other electronic stores in the Detroit area.

    At trial, the government, the prosecution introduced what is called cell phone site location data that it had received from the — from Carpenter's cell phone companies. And that data put him within a half-mile to two miles of the robberies that occurred in 2011.

    He argued that this violated his Fourth Amendment rights because the government got that data from the cell phone companies without a warrant. They did have an order to get it under a separate federal law known as the Stored Communications Act, but he said and argued to the Supreme Court today that the Fourth Amendment required a warrant to get the info.

  • John Yang:

    And under that other law, it's a different standard than a search warrant?

  • Marcia Coyle:

    It's a much lesser standard for the government to prove that it needs the information.

  • John Yang:

    This is all-new technology. It's under — he's arguing under the Fourth Amendment, which was drafted in the 18th century.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    That is correct.

  • John Yang:

    And what — you said that there was pretty lively arguments today.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    There were a lot of questions, good hypotheticals. The justices were very engaged and even gave the lawyers an extra total of 20 minutes for the hour — usually hour-long argument.

    First of all, there's a question of this information. How sensitive is it really? Justice Kennedy, for example, said it doesn't seem as though it's as sensitive as bank records, and the court, 40 years ago, said the government could get bank records without a search warrant, because — and this is the government's whole argument here — when you give information to a third party, you lose your expectation of privacy.

    And the government's arguing, that's what happens here. You use your cell phone, it pings the cell tower, the cell company makes a record, that's the third party. You have no expectation of privacy.

  • John Yang:

    Could you get any sense of where the justices were heading?

  • Marcia Coyle:

    There was a lot of sympathy, I think, for the privacy argument here.

    Justice Sotomayor said most Americans want to avoid Big Brother, and that includes the government being able to track your location 24/7. And there were other concerns.

    But I think what is really the challenge for the court here is, where do you draw the line with this new technology? Carpenter's lawyer said that, as technology evolves, the court will be able to find discrete categories to protect under the Fourth Amendment, like smart watches, which may contain body, physical information.

    So it's drawing the line. I sense that Carpenter could win this case, but how will the court draw the line, that is the real challenge here.

  • John Yang:

    And this could have big impact beyond this one case.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Oh, absolutely.

    In fact, that's always, I think, uppermost on the court's mind. It doesn't just rule for the case in front of it. It's looking down the road.

    Justice Breyer, I think, spoke broadly to that when he said, where are we going? This is an open box. We know not where we go.

    So I think the implications are great. Many of the tech companies in the United States filed a friend-of-the-court brief in this case, and they basically said they weren't urging the court to rule for Carpenter, but they said, look, your decisions in this area are 40 years old or older. We're now in a digital age. Please, Supreme Court, bring it up to date, so that there's guidance in terms of how to protect the privacy of the average person who uses this technology.

  • John Yang:

    It's one of the decisions we will be rooking for.

    Marcia Coyle of "The National Law Journal," thank you very much.

  • Marcia Coyle:


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