Justices ponder need for warrant to obtain cellphone tower data

WASHINGTON (AP) — Like almost everyone else in America, thieves tend to carry their cellphones with them to work.

When they use their phones on the job, police find it easier to do their jobs. They can get cellphone tower records that help place suspects in the vicinity of crimes, and they do so thousands of times a year.

Activists across the political spectrum, media organizations and technology experts are among those arguing it is altogether too easy for authorities to learn revealing details of Americans’ lives merely by examining records kept by Verizon, T-Mobile and other cellphone service companies.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday will hear its latest case about privacy in the digital age. At issue is whether police generally need a warrant to review the records.

The court will hear arguments in an appeal by federal prison inmate Timothy Carpenter. He is serving a 116-year sentence after a jury convicted him of armed robberies in the Detroit area and northwestern Ohio.

Investigators helped build their case by matching Carpenter’s use of his smartphone to cell towers near Radio Shack and T-Mobile stores that had been robbed. The question is whether prosecutors should have been required to convince a judge they had good reason, or probable cause, to believe Carpenter was involved in the crime. That’s the standard set out in the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment.

The American Civil Liberties Union, representing Carpenter, said in court papers the records “make it possible to reconstruct in detail everywhere an individual has traveled over hours, days, weeks or months.”

In Carpenter’s case, authorities obtained cellphone records for 127 days and could determine when he slept at home and where he attended church on Sunday, said the ACLU’s Nathan Freed Wessler.

The judge at Carpenter’s trial refused to suppress the records, and a federal appeals court agreed. The Trump administration said the lower court decisions should be upheld.

Nineteen states supporting the administration said the records “are an indispensable building block” in many investigations. There is no evidence the records have been used improperly and requiring a warrant for them would result in more crimes going unsolved, the states said.