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Cell-site records created and maintained by wireless carriers fall on the unprotected side of the Fourth Amendment. Those records say nothing about the content of any calls. Instead the records include routing information, which the wireless providers gathered in the ordinary course of business. Carriers necessarily track their customers' phones across different cell-site sectors to connect and maintain their customers' calls. And carriers keep records of these data to find weak spots in their network and to determine whether roaming charges apply, among other purposes. Thus, the cell-site data, like mailing addresses, phone numbers, and IP addresses, are information that facilitate personal communications, rather than part of the content of those communications themselves. The government's collection of business records containing these data therefore is not a search.
In Fourth Amendment cases the Supreme Court has long recognized a distinction between the content of a communication and the information necessary to convey it. Content, per this distinction, is protected under the Fourth Amendment, but routing information is not. Here, Timothy Carpenter and Timothy Sanders were convicted of nine armed robberies in violation of the Hobbs Act. The government's evidence at trial included business records from the defendants' wireless carriers, showing that each man used his cellphone within a half-mile to two miles of several robberies during the times the robberies occurred. Carpenter and Sanders argued that the government's collection of those records constituted a warrantless search in violation of the Fourth Amendment. In making that argument, however, Carpenter and Sanders elided both the distinction described above and the difference between GPS tracking and the far less precise locational information that the government obtained here.
Did the government's collection of business records containing cell-site data constitute a warrantless search in violation of the Fourth Amendment?
The court held that government's collection of business records containing cell-site data was not a search under the Fourth Amendment. Suppression of evidence was not among the remedies available for alleged violations of the Stored Communications Act, 18 U.S.C.S. §§ 2707(b), 2708. The court found that the district court properly denied defendant's motion for judgment of acquittal for lack of venue over the counts charging defendant with aiding and abetting a Hobbs Act robbery and aiding and abetting the use of a firearm in connection with that robbery, violations of 18 U.S.C.S. §§ 924(c), 1951(a), because a reasonable trier of fact could credit witnesses' testimony that much of defendant's conduct in abetting both the robbery and the use of a firearm during it took place in the Eastern District of Michigan.