In the political world, conservatives often accuse liberals of being soft on crime. At the U.S. court, that's not how it goes. Case in point, at the high court on Wednesday, a majority of the justices across ideological lines indicated they may be willing to impose new limits on the government's ability to gain access to large amounts of information retained by private companies in the digital age.
The question before the court in Carpenter v. United States is whether police have to get a search warrant to obtain cellphone tracking information that is routinely kept by wireless providers.
The case arose out of a series of armed robberies in 2010 and 2011 — robberies, ironically, aimed at stealing hundreds of new cellphones and selling them for tens of thousands of dollars. When police apprehended some members of the ring, the smaller fish implicated the leader of the ring, Timothy Carpenter, whereupon the police got a court order to get access to 127 days of cellphone tracking records for Carpenter and other members of the gang. Lo and behold, Carpenter's general location information matched the robbery locations, and that information was used to help convict him.
Prosecutors did get a court order before gaining access to the information, but they only had to show that they were seeking evidence relevant to a criminal investigation. Getting a search warrant is harder and requires more specific information.