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Harlan Institute » Lesson Plan – Carpenter v. United States
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Lesson Plan – Carpenter v. United States

Timothy Ivory Carpenter v. United States of America

Certiorari granted by the United States Supreme Court on June 5, 2017 Oral arguments TBD


The Question Presented

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Case Background

In April 2011, police arrested four men for a series of armed robberies of T-Mobile and Radio Shack stores in Detroit, Michigan. One of these individuals confessed to working with as many as fifteen men to commit nine armed robberies. He gave the police his cell phone number and the numbers of some accomplices. The FBI searched through his cell phone’s records to identify other numbers that were contacted during the time of the robberies. Following this initial inquiry, the FBI asked several magistrate judges for permission to obtain “transactional records” associated with sixteen other cell phone numbers. (The data requested included subscriber information, toll records, call detail records that showed the phone numbers of incoming and outgoing calls, and cell site information at the beginning and end of each call for the numbers in question.) The magistrate judges granted the government’s application pursuant to the Stored Communications Act, under which the government may require the disclosure of certain telecommunications records when “specific and articulable facts show[ ] that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the contents of a wire or electronic communication, or the records or other information sought, are relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation.”. Note that the government did not request a formal search warrant. Based on these searches, the police obtained evidence implicating Timothy Carpenter and Timothy Sanders with the crimes. They were soon charged with several violations of federal law. Carpenter and Sanders moved to suppress the evidence derived from the FBI’s search of their cell phones. They argued that this warrantless search violated the Fourth Amendment because there was no probable cause. The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan denied their motion to suppress the evidence. At trial, the government presented location data from Carpenter and Sanders’s cell phones. The records showed that while several of the robberies were being committed, the duo used their cell phones within two miles of crime scenes. Carpenter and Sanders were convicted of nine armed robberies, and given sentences of 1,395 months and 170 months, respectively. The court refused to set aside their verdict, ruling that the government’s compilation of the defendant’s cell-site records was not a search under the Fourth Amendment; therefore, a warrant was not needed. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision. The three-judge panel held:
In Fourth Amendment cases the Supreme Court has long recognized a distinction between the content of a communication and the information necessary to convey it. Content, per this distinction, is protected under the Fourth Amendment, but routing information is not. Here, Timothy Carpenter and Timothy Sanders were convicted of nine armed robberies in violation of the Hobbs Act. The government’s evidence at trial included business records from the defendants’ wireless carriers, showing that each man used his cellphone within a half-mile to two miles of several robberies during the times the robberies occurred. The defendants argue that the government’s collection of those records constituted a warrantless search in violation of the Fourth Amendment. In making that argument, however, the defendants elide both the distinction described above and the difference between GPS tracking and the far less precise locational information that the government obtained here. We reject the defendants’ Fourth Amendment argument along with numerous others, and affirm the district court’s judgment.
The full Sixth Circuit opinion can be read here. (jump to the top of the page)

The Law

U.S. Constitution, Amendment IV

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Stored Communications Act, 18 U.S.C. § 2703(d)

Requirements for Court Order—A court order for disclosure under subsection (b) or (c) may be issued by any court that is a court of competent jurisdiction and shall issue only if the governmental entity offers specific and articulable facts showing that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the contents of a wire or electronic communication, or the records or other information sought, are relevant and material to an ongoing criminal investigation. In the case of a State governmental authority, such a court order shall not issue if prohibited by the law of such State. A court issuing an order pursuant to this section, on a motion made promptly by the service provider, may quash or modify such order, if the information or records requested are unusually voluminous in nature or compliance with such order otherwise would cause an undue burden on such provider.
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Supreme Court Cases

United States v. Jones, 565 U.S. 400 (2012):   Smith v. Maryland, 442 U.S. 735 (1979):   United States v. Miller, 425 U.S. 435, 443 (1976):     Katz v. United States, 389 U.S. 347 (1967):   Boyd v. United States, 116 U.S. 616, 625 (1886):    Ex parte Jackson, 96 U.S. 727 (1878):   (jump to the top of the page)

Primary Historical Sources

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Secondary Resources

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Tournament Instructions


Using historical materials related to the Fourth Amendment Clause, and the precedents of the United States Supreme Court, teams of two high school students will write an appellate brief on the FantasySCOTUS Blog arguing whether or not the search at issue in Carpenter v. United States violates the Fourth Amendment. Further, the teams will submit an oral argument video.  

The Brief

After registering, teachers should contact the Harlan Institute and ConSource at, and we will randomly assign teams to argue either for or against the position.  The Petitioner will argue on behalf of Carpenter that the search is unconstitutional. The Respondents will argue on behalf of the United States that the search is constitutional. The brief should have the following sections: The brief should be submitted as a blog post by February 23, 2018. The brief must be a minimum of 2,000 words. For examples of what a complete Supreme Court brief should contain, see the winning briefs from previous years: We recommend you develop your brief in Microsoft Word or Google Docs, and paste it into the blog post when you are finished. Be sure to proof read your work. The work must be yours, and you may not seek help from anyone else–including attorneys or law students. Students who submit plagiarized briefs will be disqualified.

Preliminary Oral Arguments

In addition to the brief, each team must submit a YouTube video of their oral arguments. We will provide your teachers with questions to ask, and they can of course supplement with their own questions. Each argument must be at least ten minutes in length. The videos must be submitted with the blog post on Friday, February 23, 2018. For examples of how the arguments should be structured please watch some of the submissions from past years.

Oral Arguments Semifinals

The top sixteen teams will advance to the oral argument semifinals, which will be held virtually over Google Hangout on March 18, 2018. Oral arguments will be judged based on our scoring rubric. More information will be provided about the semifinals after the briefs are submitted.

Oral Arguments Championship Round

The final round of the Virtual Supreme Court Competition will be held in Washington, D.C. (Last year, the event was hosted at the Georgetown University Law Center Supreme Court Institute). The Harlan Institute and ConSource will sponsor the top two teams, and their teachers, for a trip to Washington, D.C. in April 2018 to debate in front of a panel of expert judges, including lawyers, university level debate champions, and legal scholars.