We post news and comment on federal criminal justice issues, focused primarily on trial and post-conviction matters, legislative initiatives, and sentencing issues.
PRIVACY IN THE SMARTPHONE AGE
The Supreme Court heard oral argument last Wednesday in Carpenter v. United States, an important criminal case asking whether prosecutors may use cellphone location records against a defendant when the records were obtained from cellphone companies without a warrant.
The more basic question is whether personal information collected by third parties (often without one’s consent or even knowledge) remains private to the extent that the 4th Amendment requires a search warrant before the government swoops in to commandeer it.
Cellphones send signals to the nearest cell towers as long as the phone is on, even when no call is being made. Cellphone companies store records of the tower to which a cellphone is linked for up to 18 months. By stringing together 18 months of cell tower records, one can easily build a historical record of just about everywhere one was for the past year and a half. Scary.
For robbery suspect Tim Carpenter, the data obtained by the government without a warrant showed he was in the vicinity of several Radio Shack locations right at the time those stores were being robbed (of smartphones, ironically enough). We call that location data “circumstantial evidence,” but – contrary to popular belief – circumstantial evidence is perfectly good evidence, and in Tim’s case, it was good enough to convict. Tim got sentenced to a mere 116 years.
At oral argument, the Supreme Court seemed sympathetic with the idea that information in the hands of a third party may nevertheless be so personal that a search warrant is required before it is retrieved. At the same time, the Court was puzzled as to how to frame a rule to cover the situation. As Justice Stephen Breyer put it at one point, “This is an open box. We know not where we go.”
Even if the Court does hold that cellphone location records required a search warrant to obtain, the holding probably would not help people who have already been convicted. The decision would be a new constitutional rule of criminal procedure, but in all likelihood it would not be a “watershed” rule that would be retroactive for convictions that were already final.
What’s more, even if the location data is held to be protected by the 4th Amendment, incarcerated people who will someday be on supervised release should recognize that their cellphones – which now more than ever contain the user’s entire life story – are not private. In a decision last week affirming Valentino Johnson’s felon-in-possession conviction, the 9th Circuit held that a warrantless search of his cellphone was permissible because he was on parole.
The Circuit said parole is different from probation, because it is akin to actual imprisonment. “On the ‘continuum’ of state-imposed punishments,” the Court said, “parolees appear to hold the most limited privacy interests among people convicted of a crime but are not actually imprisoned.” Although the case relates to state parole, its analysis would apply equally to supervised release.
SCOTUSBlog.com, Argument analysis: Drawing a line on privacy for cellphone records, but where? (Nov. 29, 2017)
United States v. Johnson, Case No. 16-10184 (9th Cir. Nov. 27, 2017)
– Thomas L. Root