US Supreme Court to Police: ‘Get a Warrant’ Before Searching Cell Phones — Kevin Gosztola
June 25 2014
The United States Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision instructing police that they must get a warrant if they want to search an arrested person’s cell 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,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the court’s opinion [PDF].
The decision applied to two cases. In one case, Riley v. California, involves an officer who seized a “smartphone” from a person who was under arrest and began to scroll through its contents at the scene of the arrest. He was looking through text messages and the phone’s contact list. In the second case, United States v. Wurie, an officer believed the person arrested had used a cell phone to arrange a drug deal. At the police station, an officer noticed that a “flip” phone was repeatedly receiving calls from a number labeled “my house.” The officer searched through the call log on the phone in order to obtain the home phone number.
The Supreme Court solidly affirmed that Americans have a Fourth Amendment privacy interest in keeping their cell phones from being subject to warrantless searches.
“These decisions are huge for digital privacy,” EFF Staff Attorney Hanni Fakhoury reacted. “The court recognized that the astounding amount of sensitive data stored on modern cell phones requires heightened privacy protection, and cannot be searched at a police officer’s whim. This should have implications for other forms of government electronic searches and surveillance, tightening the rules for police behavior and preserving our privacy rights in our increasingly digital world.”
Steven R. Shapiro, national legal director for the ACLU, reacted, “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. 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.”