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Historical Phone Location Data Will Need a Warrant, Says Supreme Court

On Behalf of | Jul 11, 2018 | Criminal Defense |

With technological advances placing everyone’s data within easy reach, privacy concerns are undoubtedly high on the list of worries of many individuals. This is especially the case when considering location data for criminal cases. If someone is involved with a crime, how easy is it for police to access a phone that can provide them with the location information of the accused, perhaps placing them at or near the scene of a crime?

A recent landmark Supreme Court ruling may make it a little harder for law enforcement to overstep boundaries into someone’s personal data in a criminal case, citing the Fourth Amendment as the reason.

Fourth Amendment

The Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Bill of Rights protects an individual against illegal search and seizure. This is a significant amendment when it comes to criminal cases, as sometimes the rights of the accused are violated when searches occur before law enforcement obtains a warrant. This can be a vital part of a defendant’s defense.

The Recent Data Dispute

The case of Carpenter vs. U.S. is the first case about phone location data that the Supreme Court has ruled on in the history of the U.S., indicating that the Court is taking an interest in the growing issue of technology in criminal cases.

Timothy Carpenter’s case started with a 2011 robbery in Detroit. Police had gathered months worth of data from Carpenter’s phone provider and pulled together almost 13,000 different locations he had been over 127 days before the crime. The concern of the defense became that the data was pulled without a warrant.

The Sixth Court of Appeals judge ruled that the Fourth Amendment does not protect cell phone data, but the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed. In a historic 5-4 decision, the Court ruled that a warrant must be obtained before the government can have access to historical GPS data from someone’s devices. This means that law enforcement must have probable cause in order to “search” someone’s data for historical location information.

Groundbreaking Ruling

This groundbreaking ruling sets a precedent for American’s phone data being used in criminal investigations. Because phone devices provide an almost perfect surveillance tool, the Court decided that historical GPS data is protected under the Fourth Amendment. Major tech companies such as Apple, Facebook, and Google also supported additional protection for data and filed a brief urging the justices to make it harder for law enforcement to obtain data without a warrant.


There are exceptions to the technology mentioned in this ruling. Law enforcement may use security cameras, business records, and real-time location tracking in a case without a warrant.

This ruling shows that using technology to prove guilt without probable cause may become harder for law enforcement. If you are arrested and accused of a crime, it’s vital that you contact an experienced criminal defense attorney who understands the ruling of the law. Your attorney can assist you with your defense.


Ng, A. (2018, June 22). Supreme Court says warrant necessary for phone location data in win for privacy. Retrieved July 10, 2018, from

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