Obtaining and examining cell site location records to find a person is a “search” in any normal sense of the word — a search of documents and a search for a person and her personal effects. It is therefore a “search” within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment in that it constitutes “examining,” “exploring,” “looking through,” “inquiring,” “seeking,” or “trying to find.” Nothing about the text of the Fourth Amendment, or the historical backdrop against which it was adopted, suggests that “search” should be construed more narrowly as, for example, intrusions upon subjectively manifested expectations of privacy that society is prepared to recognize as reasonable.
Entrusting government agents with unfettered discretion to conduct searches using cell site location information undermines Fourth Amendment rights. The Amendment guarantees “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches.” The Framers chose that language deliberately. It reflected the insecurity they suffered at the hands of “writs of assistance,” a form of general warrant that granted state agents broad discretion to search wherever they pleased. Such arbitrary power was “unreasonable” to the Framers, being “against the reason of the common law,” and it was intolerable because of its oppressive impact on “the people” as a whole. As emphasized in one of the seminal English cases that inspired the Amendment, this kind of general power to search was “totally subversive of the liberty of the subject.” James Otis’s famous speech denouncing a colonial writ of assistance similarly condemned those writs as “the worst instrument of arbitrary power,” placing “the liberty of every man in the hands of every petty officer.”
Thus, although those who drafted and ratified the Fourth Amendment could not have anticipated cellphone technology, they would have recognized the dangers inherent in any state claim of unlimited authority to conduct searches for evidence of criminal activity. Cell site location information provides insight into where we go and what we do. Because this information is constantly generated and can be retrieved by the government long after the activities it memorializes have taken place, unfettered government access to cell site location information raises the specter of general searches and undermines the security of “the people.”
Scholarly Commons Citation
Donohue, Laura K.; Citron, Danielle; Cloud, Morgan; Colbert, Bradford; Cuddihy, William J.; Garland, Norman M.; Gray, David C.; Hu, Margaret; Hutchins, Renee M.; Maclin, Tracey; Milligan, Luke; and Thomas, George C. III, "Brief of Scholars of the History and Original Meaning of the Fourth Amendment as Amici Curiae in Support of Petitioner, Carpenter v. United States, No. 16-402 (U.S. Aug. 14, 2017)" (2017). Georgetown Law Faculty Publications and Other Works. 1998.