Supreme Court rules that search warrants are needed for cell phones

By Daniel S Levine,

In a unanimous decision handed down on Wednesday, the Supreme Court said that police cannot search cell phones and smartphones without a search warrant.

The Court issued a ruling on individual cases in California and Massachusetts. According to USA Today, while the justices did note that investigating crimes are important, they sided with privacy advocates who argued that searching a phone without a warrant was a violation of privacy rights.

“We cannot deny that our decision today will have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the decision. “Privacy comes at a cost.”

The Wall Street Journal reports that law enforcement had said that cell phones and other electronic devices should be covered under the long-standing exception that allows officers to search a suspect’s pockets to see if the person is carrying a weapon or trying to destroy evidence. But the Court didn’t buy it.

“Modern cellphones are not just another technological convenience,” Roberts wrote, noting that Americans now carry their entire lives on their cell phones. Essentially, there’s no way to tell how much information could be revealed about a person just by searching their phone.

“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,” Roberts wrote.

This decision follows a 2012 Court decision, in which the justices unanimously ruled that search warrants were necessary for police to search data on a GPS device. However, the Court also ruled that authorities could take routine DNA swabs without a warrant, so it was unclear which way the court would rule in this case before oral arguments were heard in April.

The California case, San Diego, Riley v. California, involved police using information from a suspect’s cell phone to connect him with an unsolved shooting. While the state courts upheld that decision, the Court overruled that. In the Massachusetts case, U.S. v. Wurie, appeals courts overruled a conviction.



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