19492SCOTUS unanimous - search warrant required
- Jun 25, 2014
Supreme Court: Police Need Warrants to Search Cellphone Data
Unanimous Supreme Court Says Privacy Interests Outweigh Police Convenience
WASHINGTON—The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday police must almost always obtain a warrant before searching mobile devices seized when arresting someone, extending constitutional privacy protections to the increasingly vast amounts of data Americans keep on smartphones, cellphones and other hand-held digital technology.
The court, in a unanimous ruling by Chief Justice John Roberts, said both the quantity and quality of information contained in modern hand-held devices is constitutionally protected from police intrusion without a warrant.
"Modern cellphones aren't a technological convenience," Chief Justice Roberts wrote. "With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans 'the privacies of life,'" he wrote.
The ruling rejected law-enforcement arguments that cellphones fell under a long-standing exception to the warrant requirement that allows police to search the contents of suspects' pockets to make sure they don't carry weapons or destroy evidence.
Chief Justice Roberts acknowledged the decision would impede some police investigations. His response: "Privacy comes at a cost.""Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cellphone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple—get a warrant," the chief justice added.
Lower courts had been split on the question, and the justices themselves have been grappling with the bounds of privacy in the digital age, sometimes tilting toward government, other times toward the individual.
"By recognizing that the digital revolution has transformed our expectations of privacy, today's decision is itself revolutionary and will help to protect the privacy rights of all Americans," said Steven R. Shapiro, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union. "We have entered a new world but, as the court today recognized, our old values still apply and limit the government's ability to rummage through the intimate details of our private lives."
In a 2012 ruling the court unanimously held police secretly installing a GPS tracker on a suspect's car qualified as a search under the Fourth Amendment, potentially requiring a warrant. The following year, however, the court voted 5-4 to find that authorities could routinely take DNA samples from arrestees without a warrant, even if police lacked grounds to believe the genetic code would link the suspect to a particular crime.
The Fourth Amendment prohibits "unreasonable searches and seizures" and requires investigators to persuade a magistrate they have "probable cause" to obtain a search warrant. The court generally held that searches require warrants, with several significant exceptions. One such exception is searching a suspect's pockets and some nearby objects to protect officers from concealed weapons and prevent destruction of evidence.
The question before the court in Wednesday's ruling was whether searching the contents of a cellphone retrieved from a suspect's pocket was a such a search "incident to arrest," much like leafing through an address book—or was it more akin to downloading the contents of a personal computer, the type of intrusive search that traditionally has required a warrant.
The court apparently saw it as a nuanced question, because it took two warrantless cellphone search cases with somewhat different facts, although it ultimately addressed the issue with one ruling.
In a case from San Diego, Riley v. California, police went through the suspect's phone to find incriminating photos, video clips, texts and other information connecting the arrestee to an unsolved shooting. State courts upheld the search under the view that any pocket litter, regardless of the volume of information it contained, was exempt from the warrant requirement.
A federal appeals court in Boston reached the opposite conclusion in the second case, U.S. v. Wurie. There, the suspect's phone rang after he was arrested, displaying a caller labeled as "My House." Police opened the phone, checked the associated number, and traced it to a house. They obtained a search warrant for the house, where they found drugs, a gun and other evidence.