Carpenter v. US: Gorsuch’s Dissent Re-Ignites Criticism of the Third-Party Doctrine

By Lauryn Gouldin

One interesting aspect of the Court’s decision in Carpenter v. United States is Justice Neil Gorsuch’s dissent. While many will, no doubt, cast the Carpenter decision as a 5-4 decision narrowing the reach of the Court’s broadly applied and long-criticized third-party doctrine, attentive readers will see that the result is a bit more complex. For those trying to predict where the justices stand on Fourth Amendment issues going forward, this is better characterized as a 5-3-1 decision, with Justice Gorsuch standing alone. 

“Like Justice Thomas, Justice Gorsuch is skeptical of the Court’s Katz v. US jurisprudence and its efforts to ascertain (or worse, to dictate) what the community views as a ‘reasonable expectation of privacy.’”

Chief Justice John Robert’s majority opinion, joined by the Court’s four liberal justices (justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan), marks a significant narrowing of the third-party doctrine—significant, in part, because it is the first case where a majority of the Court acknowledges that the doctrine has meaningful limitations. But it is also a measured decision. Many encouraged the Court to use Carpenter to eliminate the third-party doctrine altogether. The majority, however, clearly declined to go that far and claimed that its decision was “a narrow one.” 

Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito writing together (and separately) are clearly persuaded that the government conduct in this case—the order to a cell phone company to search company records for data collected about a subscriber’s past locations—was not a “search” under the meaning of the Fourth Amendment. 

Justice Gorsuch’s take on that basic question is different. Like Justice Thomas, Justice Gorsuch is skeptical of the Court’s Katz v. US jurisprudence and its efforts to ascertain (or worse, to dictate) what the community views as a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” Justice Gorsuch clearly disagrees with the other dissenters about the possibility of a Fourth Amendment violation on the facts presented. In his dissenting opinion, Justice Gorsuch repeatedly suggests that he sees government overreaching (and a potential Fourth Amendment violation) in the factual background of the case. He unmistakably criticizes the third-party doctrine, stating, for example, that “[c]onsenting to give a third party access to private papers that remain my property is not the same thing as consenting to a search of those papers by the government.” Further, he agrees with the majority that “the rationale of Smith and Miller is wrong.”

Despite these concerns about the doctrine and about the underlying question, Justice Gorsuch dissents from the majority opinion, ruling against Carpenter on procedural grounds. In Gorsuch’s view, Carpenter failed to assert and develop essential property-based, positive law arguments. Justice Gorsuch even suggests these arguments might have persuaded him to rule in Carpenter’s favor (“In these circumstances, I cannot help but conclude—reluctantly—that Mr. Carpenter forfeited perhaps his most promising line of argument.”) Justice Gorsuch says, explicitly, that it is “entirely possible a person’s cell-site data could qualify as his papers or effects under existing law.”

Lauryn Gouldin is Associate Professor of Law at Syracuse University College of Law.