Telephones were the last thing on the mind of the Founders when the U.S. Constitution was written, as no one of that time had any idea that technology would become what it is today. Personal privacy was actually such a non-issue that that it was not even directly addressed when the document was being written, as books and newspapers were the only form of societal communication. In addition, crime had a completely different dynamic as well, with most criminal cases involving physical attack, gun fights, or various forms of theft. But, in today’s world, there are myriad ways in which a crime can be committed, commonly involving the use of a personal phone that leaves a wide array of information available for police authorities when attempting to solve crimes. The question today is one of priority, along with the view of the Supreme Court that people have at least a “reasonable expectation” of privacy in certain areas of their life. Today that area includes personal cell phone records.
The high court decided this issue in an appeal from a convicted individual who was accused of orchestrating several coordinated robberies of electronics stores while using the his personal cell phone to connect with other ring members. At issue was the concept of “reasonable means” of obtaining the information police used to solve the case. They used cell phone tower information that was accessed without a warrant and covered a time frame of over four months. According to the court, this extended swath of information gleaned from cell phone tower records was excessive.
The significance of this decision has much more impact than many people realize, as it will govern all investigations from now on when officers want to access phone records. The concept of “being secure in personal papers” is now extended to cell phone use as well, with Chief Justice John Roberts writing the opinion that the need for a personal cell phone is a fundamental necessity to function in modern society. Not only can phone information reveal individual private facts about the owner, but information extracted from phone records over a four-month period gives police officials much more personal information than needed to prove the charge.
The court ruled that because the requested records were not specific concerning what the police needed, this case was an example of governmental overreach that should be protected by a reasonable right to privacy concerning aspects of the defendant’s life that do not pertain to the case. Privacy rights advocates surely consider this decision a victory for the common person, even when being accused of a crime that can be proven they committed. And of course, police departments across the nation are saying it impedes their ability to do their job, but the U.S. Constitution has historically been pesky in that regard as well.