In a landmark decision for digital privacy, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously decided that warrantless searches of cell phones are not permitted by the Fourth Amendment.
In order for law enforcement to search a person’s cell phone, they must first receive a warrant to do so, much like they must do for non-digital information.
Civil rights advocates and privacy groups have lauded the decision as a huge step forward in protecting the digital privacy of citizens, and had far reaching implications The ACLU’s national legal director called the SCOTUS decision a “revolutionary” one and said it would “protect the privacy rights of all Americans.”
The SCOTUS Opinion
Chief Supreme Court Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion, which includes the following passage:
“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 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.”
The Cases that Led to the Decision
The decision was based on two privacy cases that went all the way to the Supreme Court, one in California and one in Massachusetts.
- The California case involved a defendant named David Riley who was arrested for driving with expired registration tags and a suspended license. After his car was impounded, officers found loaded firearms and gang paraphernalia. Without getting a warrant, officers seized his cell phone and accessed his text messages and contacts, to see if they could find any evidence on it.
- The Massachusetts case involved a defendant named Brima Wurie who was observed by officers making drug sales from his car. After arresting him, officers accessed the call log of his cell phone and identified the location of a telephone number he had repeatedly called. After obtaining a warrant, they found drugs and weapons at the address.
The Court looked at both cases to see if the warrantless searches of the defendants’ cell phones were reasonable and allowed under the Fourth Amendment. The Court ruled that they were not reasonable, but allowed for exemptions in emergency situations, such as preventing a terrorist act.
The Future of Digital Privacy
In issuing the ruling, the Court acknowledged that times have changed, and the privacy laws that protect citizens must be brought up to date as well. We no longer live in an era of only physical records, such as diaries or snail mail.
This unanimous Supreme Court decision may have implications far beyond cell phone data, such as the legality of sniffing devices that steal your online communications to the NSA’s bulk gathering of emails and phone calls from all U.S. citizens.
The future of this ruling is unclear, but for now, your digital information, just like the content of your house or your car, is protected from warrantless searches. And that’s something that everyone concerned about privacy can celebrate.