Texas Legislator Applauds Supreme Court Data Privacy Ruling

June 27, 2018 by

Texas State Sen. Konni Burton (R-Colleyville) is applauding a recent ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court declaring that, in most instances, a warrant is required for law enforcement to access a citizen’s cell phone location data.

“I am pleased to see that the court is reinforcing the reasonable expectation of privacy for individuals who carry cell phones. The court has affirmed that the Fourth Amendment will remain strong in our digital age. I commend them for this precedent as I have also sought to protect citizens’ digital information from unwarranted government intrusion here in Texas.”

As I previously wrote, in many states there are no protections against having one’s cell phone location data accessed by law enforcement. While location services are turned on, cell phones record every location they visit, and the services are usually unknowingly turned on. Police have used this data to track down suspects, and it has usually been understood that because of the third-party doctrine, a user would have no reasonable expectation to privacy.

Thankfully, the Court disagreed.

“We decline to grant the state unrestricted access to a wireless carrier’s database of physical location information,” read the opinion. The 5-4 opinion said it does not matter if the data is in the hands of a third party; law enforcement needs a warrant in most instances. Of course, exceptions were made for emergencies like child abductions and terrorism or bomb threats.

Burton’s support for the ruling is welcome, especially since she has authored bills to restrict unwarranted access to an individual’s cell phone data. She also passed a bill that forced a warrant requirement before law enforcement searches a personal cell phone device.

The case leading to the decision was Carpenter v. United States. Witnesses in the case said Timothy Carpenter orchestrated a string of Radio Shack and T-Mobile robberies in Detroit where he supplied the guns, played lookout, and drove the getaway car. Carpenter was convicted and sentenced to 116 years in prison after prosecutors used cell-site data to place Carpenter near many of the robberies.

In a statement, American Civil Liberties Union attorney Nathan Freed Wessler who argued the case said, “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.”

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About the Author

Charles operates the Houston office for Empower Texans/Texans for Fiscal Responsibility.