Fourth Amendment protects against warrantless seizure of cellphone location records, amicus brief argues

Press Release | August 14, 2017
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and a coalition of 19 other media organizations support requiring the government to obtain warrants for access to cellphone location records
 
Today the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and a coalition of 19 other media organizations submitted a friend-of-the-court brief to the Supreme Court of the United States in the case of Carpenter v. United States. The coalition brief urges the Supreme Court to reverse a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and require the government to abide by the Fourth Amendment and obtain a warrant to access cellphone location records. The case raises concern for media organizations because the government could access cellphone location records that reveal the newsgathering activities of journalists without adhering to any constitutional safeguards.
 
“The government should not be able to obtain cellphone location records without first getting a warrant,” said Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “The current ruling makes it too easy for the government to track a person’s every move through their cellphone, which is especially worrisome if the location records in question belong to a journalist. This endangers journalists’ ability to gather information and keep the public informed without the risk of being easily and routinely surveilled.”
 
The coalition brief argues that cellphone location records paint an intimate and comprehensive picture of where individuals go, and thus the people and places they associate with.
 
According to the brief, a journalist’s cellphone location data “can disclose particularly sensitive details about the journalistic process: It can reveal the stories a journalist is working on before they are published, where a journalist went to gather information for those stories, and the identity of a journalist’s sources…Exposure of sources and journalistic methods can put sources’ jobs and lives at risk, compromise the integrity of the newsgathering process, and have a chilling effect on reporting.”
 
The brief also argues that if the government can easily and routinely access detailed information about a person’s movements without a warrant, it threatens the ability to freely engage in activities protected by the First Amendment like newsgathering, which now often relies on use of a cellphone.
 
“Cellphones have become a mobile newsroom and a necessary newsgathering tool for journalists. Unfortunately, there’s no way to use a cellphone without sharing some location data with a service provider,” said Brown. “Allowing the government to easily access cellphone location records that paint a picture of where a journalist goes and possibly even who they meet with chills reporter-source relationships, threatens newsgathering, and ultimately harms the flow of information to the public.”
 
The full coalition brief is available here.