The Supreme Court issued a major ruling on Friday that privacy advocates are touting as a win for the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution and the American people.
In a 5-4 decision, the court declared that law enforcement officials must obtain a warrant prior to accessing cell phone records or using such collected information against a suspect.
According to the Independent Journal Review, that ruling broke with previous court precedence set in 1979 that disregarded the expectation of privacy a citizen held with regard to landlines and the information held by phone companies.
However, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion that times have changed and phone companies are now in possession of far more personal information about users than they’d held before, information which users should expect would remain private.
The case centered on the arrest and conviction for multiple armed robberies of a man named Timothy Carpenter, who was convicted in part by thousands of cell phone records obtained without a warrant by police which showed that Carpenter had been at the scene of the robberies he was accused of committing.
“The government’s position fails to contend with the seismic shifts in digital technology that made possible the tracking of not only Carpenter’s location but also everyone else’s, not for a short period but for years and years,” wrote Roberts with regard to the previous precedent.
He added that “when the government tracks the location of a cell phone it achieves near-perfect surveillance, as if it had attached an ankle monitor to the phone’s user.”
In order to track a suspect with “near-perfect surveillance,” police must first obtain a warrant, and that should be no different whether the surveillance is in person or of the electronic records variety.
“This is a groundbreaking victory for Americans’ privacy rights in the digital age,” stated ACLU attorney Nathan Freed Wessler.
“The Supreme Court has given privacy law an update that it has badly needed for many years, finally bringing it in line with the realities of modern life,” Wessler added.
Thus, it will now be considered an “unreasonable search and seizure” for law enforcement officials to obtain the cell phone records of any individual without first obtaining a search warrant for those specific records.
This is indeed a win for the privacy of American citizens and strengthens the protections offered by the Fourth Amendment against the prying eyes of the state.