March 06, 2019 Feature

Privacy’s “Third-party” Doctrine: Initial Developments in the Wake of Carpenter

By Rick Aldrich

In June of 2018, as the Supreme Court’s term was rapidly approaching its end, the Court issued its long-anticipated opinion in Carpenter v. United States.1 The case revolved around a series of robberies of Radio Shack and T-Mobile stores over a four-month period between December 2010 and March 2011 in Ohio and Michigan. Four men were arrested in Detroit, with one of the suspects providing Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) investigators with names of 15 accomplices and several cell phone numbers. Prosecutors later sought and obtained court orders under a provision of the Stored Communications Act,2 requiring MetroPCS and Sprint to provide cell-site location information (CSLI) for Timothy Carpenter over two specified periods of time. In the end, MetroPCS provided CSLI for 127 days and Sprint for two days. The cumulative total was 12,898 location points. The government’s expert at trial, FBI Special Agent Christopher Hess, testified that the data linked Carpenter to four of the robberies, and the prosecutor’s closing argument emphasized that the CSLI placed Carpenter “right where the . . . robbery was at the exact time of the robbery.”3 Carpenter was convicted and sentenced to 116 years imprisonment.

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