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Supreme Court: Police Need Search Warrant To Track Cellphone Locations


In a ruling seen as a major victory for privacy rights in the digital age, the U.S. Supreme Court this morning has ruled that police need a search warrant to track people's cellphone locations. For more on what this means, we're joined by NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. Nina, thanks for being here.


MARTIN: On its face, this seems like a highly consequential ruling.

TOTENBERG: Well, it is. I mean, there - you can illustrate that best by this case. The police had in their sights - they wanted to solve a bunch of robberies in Michigan and Ohio. They picked up a couple of suspects. The suspects ratted on their couple of colleagues and gave them their telephone numbers. And then using the cellphone location information, they tracked their phones and - the suspects' phones. And they were able to triangulate that and see that they were in all the suspected places. And...

MARTIN: They did that without a warrant.

TOTENBERG: They did that without a warrant. They got a court order that just said they were seeking relevant information. That's all you had to show. And today the Supreme Court said, no, you have to get a warrant for that to show probable cause that there's information relevant - more than relevant to...

MARTIN: Right.

TOTENBERG: ...The crime but that will help you prove that there's criminal behavior. And that's a pretty high threshold. Getting a warrant is not that easy. And the four dissenters condemned this as unnecessarily putting a strain on police, compromising the government's ability - both at the state, local and federal level - to deal with crime and even national security threats. The chief justice wrote the opinion in which he said, look, here, there were 13,000 location points over 127 days for these four individuals who challenged their convictions. And that's like an ankle bracelet, and that tells you everything about a person's life, he says. It may not be as precise as a GPS thing on your car, but it still tells you roughly where this individual has been.

MARTIN: I mean, they were arguing basically that cellphones aren't just phones anymore. They are diaries, journals, cameras. They give insight into a person's full life that...

TOTENBERG: Well, that's true.

MARTIN: ...Is much broader than a narrow scope of...

TOTENBERG: But you have to get it - the court has already ruled you have to get a warrant to find out what's in your cellphone. In this case, they went to the company - the cellphone company - and under the established doctrine until today, they were the owners of this information. And they could turn it over. These were classical business records. And so unanswered today, but the chief justice says - is not implicated in this - can getting financial records - what about a camera on the street? Can they use that? This puts at least some doubt over those, although the chief justice stressed that this was an extremely narrow decision.

MARTIN: There were four dissenting opinions. That's unusual, and each justice wrote their own discrete dissension.

TOTENBERG: Yes, and they joined each other also. They're basically all screaming bloody murder that this is unnecessary. It's going to cause terrible problems. And interestingly, the majority was the chief justice and the court's four liberals. Sort of - this is a libertarian ruling. And then a much more traditional dissent, which is much more in favor of the necessity of government to function, and that was all the court's conservatives...

MARTIN: All right.

TOTENBERG: ...Other than the chief justice.

MARTIN: NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg for us this morning on this latest ruling from the Supreme Court. Thanks so much, Nina.

TOTENBERG: Thank you.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.
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