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SCOTUS to consider legality of cellphone location evidence

95 percent of Americans reportedly own a mobile phone. Cellphone owners use these devices for basic communication, navigation, social media and a means to meet work obligations while on the go. Although use of a cellphone is almost a given, one thing that is constantly questioned is the privacy of the information shared on these devices.

This is particularly true when it comes to criminal cases. The courts are often asked to provide guidance on when the information present on a cellphone is fodder for evidence during a criminal case. The most recent question involves location information referred to as cell site location information (CSLI). The tech experts with Wired clarify that CSLI data is gathered as much as once every 7 seconds. 

Is this a serious issue? It could be. AT&T and Verizon report that they received 125,000 requests from enforcement officers for CSLI data in 2016 alone. This data can provide very detailed information about a person's location at a specific time. Based on the massive number of requests, enforcement officers are making use of this data to help build criminal cases.

What law would protect a citizen from this type of invasion? Use of CSLI data to build a criminal case in this manner may be a violation of Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure.

This question is present in Carpenter v. United States. Carpenter is heading to the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS). Law enforcement officers claim the Stored Communications Act (SCA) supports the gathering of CSLI data without a warrant. As noted in the case docket, the SCA requires reasonable grounds to gather CSLI data while a warrant requires probably cause -- a much higher standard.

Why is this important? Those who face criminal charges or who have loved ones battling for their legal rights can benefit from a basic understanding of these types of questions. Court cases like Carpenter are clarifying the right to privacy when it comes to cellphone use. The decision to this case could have a serious impact on future cases. If found in favor of the state, future cases could build on evidence gathered through these means. If found in favor of the individual, enforcement officers will be required to meet more rigorous standards before being allowed to gather this evidence. 

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