Law School Case Brief
United States v. Carpenter - 926 F.3d 313 (6th Cir. 2019)
When reviewing the denial of a motion to suppress, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit will set aside the district court's factual findings only if they are clearly erroneous, but will review de novo the district court's conclusions of law. The U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Carpenter v. United States (Carpenter II) leaves no doubt that the Government's collection of a defendant's cell-site location information (CSLI) was a search under the Fourth Amendment. The Government needed a warrant to obtain that information. As Carpenter II explains: Before compelling a wireless carrier to turn over a subscriber's CSLI, the Government's obligation is a familiar one—get a warrant.
A federal jury convicted Carpenter of robbery and gun charges after he and others committed a string of robberies in Michigan and Ohio between 2010 and 2012. During its investigation, the Government sought court orders under 18 U.S.C.S. § 2703(d) for Carpenter's CSLI. In response to the Government's applications, two magistrate judges ordered Carpenter's wireless carriers to provide "the locations of cell/site sector (physical addresses) for the target telephones at call origination and at call termination for incoming and outgoing calls." At trial, the Government used Carpenter's CSLI to create a record of his physical proximity to many of the alleged robberies. The Government emphasized the importance of Carpenter's CSLI during its closing argument, saying: "Then there's another overlay of corroboration and that is the phone data tracking. Little Tim[othy Carpenter]'s phone just happened to be right where the first robbery was at the exact time of the robbery, the exact sector." A jury convicted Carpenter of Hobbs Act robbery and related gun charges in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 924(c) and 1951(a). The district court sentenced him to more than 100 years in prison, and he appealed. The Court affirmed in a divided opinion, with the majority rejecting Carpenter's claim that the Government's collection of his CSLI was a warrantless search in violation of the Fourth Amendment. Carpenter filed a petition for certiorari, which the Supreme Court granted.
Did the Government's warrantless acquisition of Carpenter’s CSLI violate the Fourth Amendment?
The Government's warrantless acquisition of Carpenter’s CSLI violated the Fourth Amendment. Because the third-party doctrine did not shield the Government's collection of CSLI from Fourth Amendment safeguards, the acquisition of Carpenter’s CSLI was a Fourth Amendment search. The district court nevertheless properly denied suppression because the FBI agents relied in good faith on the Stored Communications Act when they obtained the data under 18 U.S.C.S. § 2703(d). Moving forward, traditional Fourth Amendment principles were to replace reflexive or mechanical use of § 2703(d). The government was required to either get a warrant or rely on a recognized exception to the warrant requirement.
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