The U.S. Supreme Court rejected a test case on privacy in the digital age on Monday, declining to decide whether police need to obtain search warrants to examine cellphone location information held by wireless carriers.
The nine justices turned away an appeal filed by a Florida man named Quartavious Davis, who was convicted of participating in a string of 2010 robberies in the Miami area and was sentenced to 1,941 months, almost 162 years, in prison without possibility of parole.
Davis challenged his convictions in part on the grounds that police did not seek a warrant when they asked his cellphone provider, MetroPCS Communications Inc, for location information that linked him to the seven different crime scenes between August and October 2010. Among the businesses targeted by Davis and five co-defendants were a gas station, a Walgreens drug store and a Wendy's restaurant.
Davis sought Supreme Court review after the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in May that the failure to obtain a warrant did not violate Davis' right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The information that law enforcement agencies can obtain from wireless carriers shows which local cellphone towers users connect to at the time they make calls. Police can use the data to determine if a suspect was in the vicinity of a crime scene.
The case and others like it pending in lower courts raise questions about how much companies protect the privacy rights of their customers. The big four wireless carriers, Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint, receive tens of thousands of requests a year from law enforcement for what is known as "cell site location information," or CSLI.
Davis' lawyers at the American Civil Liberties Union argued that police need "probable cause," and therefore a warrant, in order to avoid constitutionally unreasonable searches.
But, based on a provision of the federal Stored Communications Act, the government said it does not need probable cause to obtain customer records. Instead, the government said, prosecutors need only show there are "reasonable grounds" for the records and that they are "relevant and material" to an investigation.
Civil liberties groups assert that the 1986 law did not anticipate the way mobile devices now contain a wealth of data on each user.
The case the court rejected is Davis v. United States, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 15-146.