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Supreme Court rules police need warrant to access CSLI

On June 22, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that law enforcement agencies must generally obtain a warrant before accessing someone's cell site location information, or CSLI. Legal experts say the 5-4 decision modernizes the Fourth Amendment and provides important new privacy protections for all U.S. citizens, including the residents of South Carolina.

CSLI uses cellphone towers to precisely identify a cell phone user's location at any given time. Wireless providers collect this data for business purposes, but law enforcement officers have found it useful to track criminal suspects. The case before the court, Carpenter v. United States, involved a defendant who was convicted of robbery partly because law enforcement officers tracked his location via CSLI for 127 days. They were able to do this because the Federal Communications Act allowed authorities to access a suspect's CSLI if they could provide "reasonable grounds" that the information would aid an ongoing investigation.

The defendant argued that the police violated his Fourth Amendment rights, which protect citizens against unreasonable searches and seizures, by accessing his CSLI without a warrant. The Supreme Court had previously held that individuals lose their right to privacy when they voluntarily turn over information to a third party, but the defendant argued that the invasive quality of the digital age made that position untenable.

The court sided with the defendant. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said that CSLI provides "a detailed chronicle" of an individual's location every moment of the day. Further, he wrote that such data "implicates privacy concerns" that were beyond what the court considered in past cases. Because of the far-reaching and "inescapable" nature of CSLI, he concluded that it deserved protection under the Fourth Amendment.

Individuals facing criminal charges have the right to retain the services of a criminal defense attorney. An attorney might be able to protect a defendant's rights and work to build a strong defense against the allegations.

Source: Slate, "A Historic Victory for Privacy," Mark Stern, June 22, 2018

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