An admitted robber gave the FBI cellphone numbers of alleged accomplices. Agents used a “reasonable grounds” standard to obtain so-called “cell-site” evidence from a mobile service provider that tracked the locations of one of those individuals. That data yielded information resulting in his criminal conviction.
And then the legal challenges commenced.
Foremost was the defendant’s assertion that the Constitution’s 4th Amendment mandated a search warrant from a neutral magistrate to authorize such a search. The defense argued that the agents’ failure to secure a warrant after first establishing probable cause to do so rendered the evidence against their client inadmissible in court.
Although that argument was defeated in a lower federal court, the nation’s highest tribunal endorsed it in a narrow 5-4 decision last Friday. The court tossed the phone-linked evidence, leaving federal prosecutors with the decision whether to retry the defendant without it.
The court’s ruling was narrow in the sense that it applied only to warrantless evidence relating to cell-site location. Notwithstanding that, though, a wide band of case commentators lauded it as a major step forward in the protection of individual rights against intrusive government searches.
One analyst termed it “a groundbreaking victory for Americans’ privacy rights in the digital age.” Another stated that it “could portend a revolution in how courts understand and enforce privacy rights” in an ever-evolving high-tech age.
Supporters of the ruling hope that it will materially undercut a longstanding assumption that no privacy rights whatever attach following an individual’s voluntary sharing of information with any third party. Although the ruling explicitly cites a limited application concerning cell-site data, advocates believe that courts might now feel more inclined to extend protections to accused parties across a much broader context of supplied information.