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Supreme Court Says "Search a cellphone? Sure, Get a Warrant"

Posted on Jun 25, 2014

On Wednesday, June 25, 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that under most circumstances police would require a warrant in order to search cellphones, even during a lawful arrest.

Chief Justice John.G. Roberts Jr. said the vast amount of data on modern cellphones must be protected because 90 percent of Americans have them and they contain "a digital record of nearly every aspect of their lives-from the mundane to the intimate."

In the past, courts have allowed warrantless searches during arrests because of a concern to protect police officers and to prevent the destruction of evidence. Chief Justice Roberts said neither of those reasons made much sense with regard to cellphones. He explained that although a cellphone was indeed a phone, it was so much more including a filing system, a camera, a watch, a video player and tape recorder. It contains libraries, diaries, newspaper articles and more. The fact that all these tools are at a person's finger tips does not minimize the protection from unreasonable searches under the Fourth Amendment. In fact, if police want to search a cellphone seized incident to an arrest, all they have to do is get a search warrant.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard two cases on June 25 that were relevant to the question of warrantless cellphone searches: Riley v. California and United States v. Wurie. The Justices accepted that searching a cellphone is not the same as physical searches of the past and doing so without a warrant following an arrest was a substantial infringement on privacy and unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment.  Filing a "friend of the court" brief, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) was joined by twenty-four legal scholars and technical experts. EPIC pointed out in the brief that tampering with or destroying evidence is not a concern because there are techniques to secure that information until a warrant is obtained.

This is an historic ruling in favor of privacy rights. Still, Chief Justice Roberts said that the decision would make law enforcement more difficult, adding, "Privacy comes at a cost."

 

 

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