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Supreme Court ruling changes how police may obtain cell phone location information

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. - Law enforcement in Indiana, and across the country, will now generally need a warrant to track cell phone location data after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling Friday dealing with privacy rights in the digital age.

The justice's 5-4 decision in the case of Carpenter v.  United States changes how the government may gain access to the information phone companies collect from cellphone towers helping to reveal a user's location, finding accessing that information is a search under the Fourth Amendment.

"With this new Supreme Court ruling we will simply change the way that we do it," Indiana State Police Sgt. John Perrine said.

Cell phone data is often used by investigators in criminal cases. The justices ruled probable cause will be needed to obtain a warrant signed off on by a judge to track cell site location information, though certain circumstances may support a warrant less search.

"I don't think it's a setback for law enforcement if anything it gives us a clearly defined rules on how we have to go about obtaining warrants to search phone records," said Jim White, a professor at IUPUI's School of Public and Environmental Affairs and former ISP officer.

In this case, investigators obtained records from cell towers spanning more than 100 days without a search warrant in their case against Timothy Carpenter, who was sentenced for his part in a string of robberies in Michigan and Ohio.

The Supreme Court has already ruled in the past a warrant is required to search the cell phone of someone police have just arrested.

"There's a big question about who owns data. Is it the person who collects it or is it the person that the data is about? And in this case the Supreme Court said essentially that that data is about the individual," said Dom Caristi, a professor of telecommunications at Ball State University.

The American Civil Liberties Union helped represent Carpenter. It wrote in part:

“This is a groundbreaking victory for Americans’ privacy rights in the digital age,” said ACLU attorney Nathan Freed Wessler, who argued the case before the court last November. “The Supreme Court has given privacy law an update that it has badly needed for many years, finally bringing it in line with the realities of modern life. The government can no longer claim that the mere act of using technology eliminates the Fourth Amendment’s protections. Today’s decision rightly recognizes the need to protect the highly sensitive location data from our cell phones, but it also provides a path forward for safeguarding other sensitive digital information in future cases — from our emails, smart home appliances, and technology that is yet to be invented.”

The chief trial deputy in the Marion County Prosecutor's Office, Ryan Mears, said they use cell phones and cell phone data in general  in most murder and major felony cases, but doesn't believe the latest ruling will have a huge impact. He believes it may even speed up the process.

"We prefer using the search warrant just because the cell companies are more responsive to a search warrant being served on them as opposed to a subpoena. With a subpoena you have 30 days to respond and with the search warrant they have a tendency to provide that information much quicker," Mears said.

But the way society uses technology is constantly changing and new technologies and social media platforms are constantly evolving.

"So we deal with different issues involving cell phones, cell phone technologies and the law probably needs to catch up to where the technology is," Mears said.

While the way police may obtain some information is changing, their job remains the same, though.

"This doesn't put a stop to the way that we've used it, it just adds an extra step," Sgt. Perrine said.

Perrine said they'll review the ruling to make sure they're in compliance and stay in compliance.