The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed to hear the case of a Detroit man sentenced to 116 years in prison in a string of cellphone store robberies who argues that data from his own phone should not have been used against him.
Timothy Ivory Carpenter, 32, was sentenced in 2014 in U.S. District Court in Detroit for his role in a string of cellphone store robberies in metro Detroit and Ohio over a two-year period that allegedly involved many other people as well.
At his trial, Carpenter was accused by prosecutors of organizing most of the robberies, and cellphone data was presented which indicated, according to an expert witness, that he was in the vicinity when they occurred. That data was collected from cellphone carriers based on the cellphone towers Carpenter’s cellphone accessed at the time.
Accomplices said Carpenter would be nearby at the time of the robberies, sending a signal to the robbers to enter the stores.
On appeal, Carpenter and another defendant, both of whom were represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups, argued that data indicating the locations of their cellphones supplied to investigators by wireless carriers should have been excluded from trial.
They said because the records were made for the purposes of determining the costs of their cellphone bills, collecting them violated constitutional protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the argument in April 2016, saying while the contents of personal communications are private, under long-standing legal interpretations, “the information necessary to get those communications from point A to point B is not,” including data on which cellphone towers are used.
The ACLU in asking the Supreme Court to take up the case said there is enough disagreement among judges across the U.S. over whether decades-old rulings provide enough protection given the cell data available that it is time for the nation’s highest court to decide what constitutes a “reasonable expectation of privacy” now.
“Only this court can provide the guidance they seek about whether and how a doctrine developed long before the digital age applies to the voluminous and sensitive digital records at issue here,” the ACLU wrote to the Supreme Court. “(Only) this court can determine whether (previous rulings) render the Fourth Amendment irrelevant when the government seeks detailed records from a cell phone provider cataloging the location and movements of a cellphone user over many months.”
In asking the Supreme Court to reject the case, the U.S. Justice Department argued that the 6th Circuit “correctly held” that the government’s acquisition of MetroPCS and Sprint cell-site records did not violate constitutional protections.
Justice Department lawyers also said Carpenter can’t claim a right to privacy on business records maintained by those companies because they were collected under the Stored Communications Act, which allows for them to be acquired as long as there are “reasonable grounds” to believe they are related to an ongoing investigation.
That standard is considered far lower than that under the Fourth Amendment that there is “probable cause” to believe a crime has been committed.
The case will be heard in the court’s next term, which begins in October.