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SCOTUS to clarify when police can use cellphones to build a case

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) has agreed to hear a case that questions when police can use information held on cellphones to build a case against an individual accused of a crime. The case marks one of many that attempt to clarify how to use cellphone data and other forms of technology in criminal cases.

What other cases have touched on criminal justice and cellphone data use? As noted in a recent publication by National Public Radio, SCOTUS has used a number of cases to provide guidance on the use of data in this digital age. Two examples touch on the use of global position systems (GPS) and the contents of a phone.

When it comes to GPS data, SCOTUS clarified in 2012 that a search warrant was required to use this information to monitor a suspect’s location. The court used a similar standard for police to obtain the content held within a phone in 2014. In order to view this information, the police need a warrant.

How is this case different? This case, Carpenter v. United States, questions whether the police need a warrant to get location information from a cellphone.

Instead of using a warrant for this data, the police used a court order. This distinction is important. In order to get a warrant, the police need to show that there is probable cause that the location information will lead to evidence of criminal activity. This is not needed to get a court order.

What will SCOTUS decide? The case provides an opportunity for the justices to protect privacy rights. It is difficult to determine how the court will decide, but the cases noted above may support a ruling in favor of the defendant — a ruling that would require the police to meet a higher standard to gather this information.

What does this mean for those accused of a crime? The case will provide guidance for future proceedings. The decisions of SCOTUS apply throughout the country. As such, the ruling can help those who face similar accusations to build a defense against the charges. 

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