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Home > Blog > Criminal Defense > Supreme Court Might Be About to Change the Third Party Doctrine in Criminal Cases
Jun 12, 2017

Supreme Court Might Be About to Change the Third Party Doctrine in Criminal Cases

In a handful of last year’s blog posts, we detailed the third party doctrine, and how it allowed police to gather evidence that you committed a crime, without a warrant, if you voluntarily provided that information to third parties. This allows police to search through your garbage (you’re voluntarily giving it to the garbage collectors) and your cell phone records (your cell phone provider stores this information for its billing process) without getting a warrant, first.

Now, though, the Supreme Court of the United States has agreed to take another look at this flawed concept. It could signal a huge shift in criminal defense law.

Supreme Court Accepts Case Dealing with the Third Party Doctrine

The case, Carpenter v. United States, involves a suspect who the police linked to a handful of theft crimes by using his cell phone calls. Police officers – acting without a warrant – obtained cell phone information for Timothy Carpenter from his cell phone provider. This information revealed that he was in the vicinity of numerous robberies in the Detroit area.

During trial, Carpenter argued that this information violated his Fourth Amendment rights because it was a warrantless search that did not fall within one of the few exceptions to the warrant requirement. However, the court – both at trial and on appeal – said that it was not technically a “search” because of the third party doctrine.

Carpenter appealed from the appellate court to the U.S. Supreme Court and, on June 5, the Judges there decided to hear the case.

Why We Might See the Third Party Doctrine Fall

The Court’s decision to even hear the case is good news for civil rights and criminal defense lawyers everywhere. This is because it comes hard on heels (for the legal world) of a case in which a Justice called for a reevaluation of the third party doctrine.

In United States v. Jones, a Supreme Court case from 2012 that was decided on completely differently grounds, Justice Sotomayor voiced her displeasure with how wide-reaching the third party doctrine had become: “This approach is ill-suited to the digital age, in which people reveal a great deal of information about themselves to third parties in the course of carrying out mundane tasks.”

Statements like these – called dicta in the legal field – are rare because judges try to focus on as small of an issue as possible when deciding a case. They do this out of fear that they’re making inappropriate statements about the law that are not relevant to the facts before them. However, when there is dicta in a judge’s opinion, it’s often a sign that the court wants to hear a case that deals with that particular issue so they can reevaluate and possibly change that legal doctrine.

Carpenter presents just such an opportunity for them to change the third party doctrine. Maybe they’ll realize that it’s ripe for a change – technologies have evolved rapidly since it was created in the 1980s.

Maine Criminal Defense Attorney William T. Bly

Landmark cases like these don’t come by everyday, or even every year. William T. Bly is a criminal defense attorney who fights for his clients on a daily basis, so he is watching the developments in this case closely.

Call his law office at (207) 571-8146 or contact him online if you’ve been charged with a crime in the state of Maine.

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