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Supreme Court Says No to Police: Cops Cannot Search Cell Phones Without a Warrant

This morning, the United States Supreme Court issued its opinion in Riley v. California (joined with United States v. Wurie), two cases we’ve been monitoring for a long while now.  This is very big deal for all Americans and very good news for anyone arrested in the United States with their cell phone in their possession. 

For background, see our earlier posts:

Importance of Riley v. California Opinion

At stake today was the privacy of anyone who owns a cell phone, because police officers around the country were freely surfing around on phones that they had taken in an arrest. In doing so, the cops were able to learn all sorts of things about that phone’s owner – and they were doing this without bothering to get a search warrant.

Law enforcement agencies, including Eric Holder and the Department of Justice, fought long and hard to justify looking through the contents of someone’s phone. Their big argument to the Supreme Court was that if they can look through everything that someone has in their jeans’ pockets (officers can ask you to turn your pockets inside out, removing the contents) then looking through what is stored on a phone isn’t any different.

Luckily for us all, the Justices didn’t see things this way. The Riley decision points out that emptying a man’s pockets is a far cry from inspecting the contents of a cell phone. Instead, the Court points out, it’s more analogous to “ransacking his house for everything which may incriminate him.”

The Justices undoubtedly have much experience with using smartphones themselves, given Chief Justice Roberts’ description of the cellphone as  “… such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy.

Each Justice obviously understood that when a police officer searches through the contents of a cell phone, they are able to look through an amazing amount of personal information, and that this information is unique. From a phone’s contents, the police could learn a great deal about that person’s life including health and medical data and “specific movements down to the minute…”

“A decade ago officers might have occasionally stumbled across a highly personal item such as a diary, but today many of the more than 90% of American adults who own cell phones keep on their person a digital record of nearly every aspect of their lives.”

That, the Justices agreed, is tremendously different than the information that can be discovered in a warrantless search of someone’s pocket contents. Accordingly, a judge is needed to confirm probable cause to search the phone’s information.

The police need a search warrant.

The police need a search warrant and this has been made extremely clear:

“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,” Boyd, supra, at 630. 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. Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple—  get a warrant.”

Exceptions are given to getting a search warrant before police look into the contents of a cell phone taken from someone they’ve arrested. In situations involving an emergency, think terrorist bomb plot or locating a missing baby, then the Court finds that the warrant is not needed before the phone’s contents can be perused. Even in these emergency situations, though, the police will need to be able to prove that “exigent circumstances” existed to allow them to skip the search warrant requirement to a judge at a later time.

Victory for Personal Privacy

Law enforcement arguments failed today. It’s a day to celebrate the privacy protections granted by the federal constitution, and today’s victory for privacy rights is sadly somewhat of a rarity for privacy controversies these days. From the unanimous opinion (another rarity, the entire High Court agreed), in response to cries from the police and the Justice Department that this ruling will hamper law enforcement from its work:

“We cannot deny that our decision today will have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime. Cell phones have become important tools in facilitating coordination and communication among members of criminal enterprises, and can provide valuable incriminating information about dangerous criminals. Privacy comes at a cost. Our holding, of course, is not that the information on a cell phone is immune from search; it is instead that a warrant is generally required before such a search, even when a cell phone is seized incident to arrest.”

Major SCOTUS Privacy Decision

Make no mistake: today’s opinion is a major, landmark decision coming from the highest court in the land. Some analysts are going so far as to suggest this privacy ruling today is the biggest thing to come down from the Supreme Court in constitutional privacy rights in the past 20 years (i.e., since its limiting of police use of satellite-linked GPS tracking of a suspect’s movements by car).

As for Mr. Riley and Mr. Wurie, whose cases were decided today?

Both their convictions fail as they have won their appeals and the evidence used to convict them, coming from warrantless cellphone searches, fails under today’s decision.


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