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Supreme Court makes landmark Fourth Amendment ruling

The Fourth Amendment protects Pennsylvania residents against unreasonable search and seizure, but the courts have long held that this protection does not apply to information that is willingly shared with third parties such as banks or telephone companies. The digital age has radically changed the way that data is gathered and stored, and the Supreme Court was recently tasked with deciding whether or not the third-party doctrine should be applied to cell site location information.

This is information that is gathered by wireless service providers that can reveal in great detail where cellphones have been used. Under the provisions of the Stored Communications Act, police officers are able to access this data without first obtaining a search warrant provided that they have reasonable grounds to believe that it would provide evidence of criminal activity. However, in a narrow 5-4 decision on June 22, the Supreme Court rejected the third-party doctrine and ruled that CSLI was covered by the Fourth Amendment.

In his opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts said that he voted with the court's four liberal justices because CSLI provides so much information about an individual. The third-party doctrine has generally been applied to far less revealing data such as bank records and call lists. Dissenting justices wrote that the ruling was an overreaction to new technology and extended Fourth Amendment protections beyond the framers' intentions.

Experienced criminal defense attorneys will likely support the recent Supreme Court decision to extend Fourth Amendment protections. Judges take constitutional protections seriously, and they may dismiss criminal charges when the evidence supporting them could have been gathered illegally. Defense attorneys may make Fourth Amendment arguments when police have conducted warrantless searches, vehicles may have been pulled over for no reason or traffic stops were delayed unreasonably so that drug sniffing dogs could be called in.

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