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Resolving a long-simmering Fourth Amendment question, the U.S. Supreme Court on Friday ruled that law enforcement cannot obtain revealing cellphone data without a warrant.

The decision in Carpenter v. United States marks a win for privacy interests in the ongoing tug-of-war over data privacy in the digital age.

By a 5-4 vote, the justices said police must get a warrant when collecting so-called historical “CSLI”—cell-site location information—to assist in an unexceptional criminal investigation, but the authorities are not limited by the warrant requirement in an ongoing emergency, such as the need to pursue a fleeing suspect or protect individuals who are threatened with imminent harm.

Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. (Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/ ALM)

Chief Justice John Robert Jr. wrote the majority opinion, asserting that “as technology has enhanced the government’s capacity to encroach upon areas normally guarded from inquisitive eyes, this court has sought to ‘assure[ ] preservation of that degree of privacy against government that existed when the Fourth Amendment was adopted.”

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Tony Mauro

Tony Mauro, based in Washington, covers the U.S. Supreme Court. A lead writer for ALM's Supreme Court Brief, Tony focuses on the court's history and traditions, appellate advocacy and the SCOTUS cases that matter most to business litigators. Contact him at [email protected] On Twitter: @Tonymauro

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Marcia Coyle

Marcia Coyle, based in Washington, covers the U.S. Supreme Court. Contact her at [email protected]. On Twitter: @MarciaCoyle

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