US SC rules law enforcement needs warrant to search cellphone data

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Washington, June 23 (IANS) The US Supreme Court has ruled that law enforcement in most cases has to obtain a warrant in order to search and seize long-term cell phone records that would show a person’s location.

In a 5-4 ruling on Friday, the court held that the Fourth Amendment’s protections against an unreasonable search protects people from having the government acquire their cell-site records from wireless providers in run-of-the-mill criminal investigations, reports The Hill magazine.

Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the court’s four liberal justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, to make up the majority.

Justice Anthony Kennedy dissented along with conservative Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch.

The ruling marked a major win for privacy rights in the digital age.

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The plaintiff in the case was Timothy Carpenter, who was arrested in April 2011 for several armed robberies in Detroit, reports Efe news.

Carpenter was sentenced to 116 years in prison, as he was considered to be the mastermind of a group of thieves and the person responsible for purchasing firearms for the group.

Prosecutors had asked Carpenter’s wireless provider to hand over his cell phone records, which allowed them to follow his location during 127 days and determine that he was near the stores that were robbed.

The Supreme Court ruling, written by Chief Justice Roberts, sides with Carpenter and declines “to grant the state unrestricted access to a wireless carrier’s database of physical location information”.

According to the ruling, the government will generally need a warrant to obtain cell phone records, although some exceptions are possible, as when a suspect is on the run or is putting others in danger.

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