SCOTUS rules that police need a warrant to search cell phones

As we become more reliant on our devices, they collect more data on us, much of which is extremely private. Access to this data has been a point of contention for some time. The Supreme Court’s decision to hear Riley v. California presented an opportunity to draw clear boundary for police in the area of personal privacy.   Privacy groups have been advocating for requirements on how and when cell phone data can be accessed and used by the government since that decision. On June 25, 2014,the Supreme Court announced a win for personal privacy by deciding that a warrantless search of a suspect’s cellphone data incident to arrest is unconstitutional.

Case Highlights

  • “Modern cell phones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans ‘the privacies of life.’”
  • The Court observed that modern phones are mini-computers that perform multiple functions and hold immense amount of personal data, and were themselves inconceivable when the Court had originally permitted police to search individuals incident to arrest.
  • The Court acknowledged that searching a cell phone can potentially expose more information to the government than a search of an individual’s house, given the amount of data typical phones can store. The fact “that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of . . . protection.”
  • The Court makes clear that “Privacy comes at a cost,” and that the warrant requirement is “an important working part of our machinery of government” that must be respected.
  • The Exception: Although the Court dismissed all of the arguments that were presented for justification of a warrantless search they did say that in “exigent” circumstances like prevention of a terrorist plot or finding a missing child, that police are able to proceed without a warrant. However, after such a warrantless seizure, a court would still have to “examine whether an emergency justified a warrantless search in each particular case.”

Bottom line

From now on, your phone should not be searched just because you have been arrested. Officers must have a warrant to search your phone, aside from a narrow exception.

What’s Next

This case will play a major role in the already contentious debate surrounding personal privacy. It will be interesting to hear how this changes the application of Fourth Amendment protections to searches and seizures of all computers.

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