SCOTUS rules cops need warrant to search cellphones

An interesting ruling from the Supreme Court on cellphone privacy. The court ruled unanimously that police need a warrant to search the cellphones of those they arrest. It's a huge victory for privacy advocates and has far reaching consequences for other digital devices.

Washington Examiner:

The justices said that because cellphones potentially contain vast amounts of personal information unrelated to a person's arrest, they should be off limits to a police search without a warrant.

"Modern cellphones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans the privacies of life," Chief Justice John Roberts said in writing for the court.

"The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought."

The case pitted pitted privacy advocates and defense lawyers against law enforcement and the federal government, who argued that cellphone searches immediately after an arrest are vital to ensure evidence isn't tampered with or destroyed.

While the Fourth Amendment says police generally need a warrant before they can conduct a search, the Supreme Court in recent decades has made exceptions for belongings people carry when arrested.

The Justice Department argued that police are interested only in evidence pertinent to a person's arrest and aren't interested in gleaning personal information from cellphones.

The government also said that searches of cellphones pose little legal difference than when police search the contents of a person's wallet at the time of an arrest, which they already have the authority to do.

But Roberts said the solution for police was “accordingly simple: Get a warrant.”

The justices also suggested it was unrealistic for police to immediately know what information is relevant and what isn't, particularly in the heat of making an arrest.

And with 90 percent of adult Americans owning a cellphone, privacy rights advocates worried that police could trump up dubious arrest charges on suspects to get access to their phones.

Unlike other decisions that are more narrow in scope, this one has broad implications for privacy in all hand held devices.


The Court rejected every argument made to it by prosecutors and police that officers should be free to inspect the contents of any cellphone taken from an arrestee.  It left open just one option for such searches without a court order:  if police are facing a dire emergency, such as trying to locate a missing child or heading off a terrorist plot.  But even then, it ruled, those “exigent” exceptions to the requirement for a search warrant would have to satisfy a judge after the fact.

The ruling was such a sweeping embrace of digital privacy that it even reached remotely stored private information that can be reached by a hand-held device — as in the modern-day data storage “cloud.”  And it implied that the tracking data that a cellphone may contain about the places that an individual visited also is entitled to the same shield of privacy.

The Court’s ruling drew some suggestions by Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., to narrow its scope, but it did not accept those.  The result was the broadest constitutional ruling on privacy in the face of modern technology since the Court’s ruling two Terms ago limiting police use of satellite-linked GPS tracking of a suspect’s movements by car.

On a personal level, the decision wiped out the convictions of a San Diego, California, man and a man from Boston, because evidence obtained from their cellphones was used to help gather evidence against them and helped lead to their convictions.

In purely technical constitutional terms, the ruling put strict new technology-based limits on a century-old doctrine on police authority to search:  the idea that, once police had arrested an individual, they could search items that person had brought along, in person or within reach in a car.  Such a “search incident to arrest” exception to the Fourth Amendment warrant requirement had been a feature of criminal law since it was first mentioned by the Court in 1914.

It's unfortunate that a by-product of this decision is that two criminals get to walk. But ti's doubtful they will go "straight" so their chances of being arrested for something else are very good.

This is one case where the law has actually caught up to technology - to everyone's benefit.

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