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Supreme Court rules that police need a warrant to search cell phones

June 25, 2014 - Andrea Johnson
Sometimes the U.S. Supreme Court gets it very right and today was one of those days. The Supremes ruled unanimously that police have to get a warrant before they can search a suspect's cell phone.

There were two cases before the court, both involving decidedly unsympathetic defendants. In the first case, a man was stopped for a traffic violation by police. The police searched his phone and found evidence of gang activity. The photos and videos on the phone were used to implicate the man in a shooting that had taken place a few weeks earlier. In the second case, the police searched a cell phone from a man implicated in drug dealing. The information they found on the cell phone phone was used to obtain a search warrant for the man's apartment, where a police search turned up drugs, a firearm and ammunition and cash, all of which were used to convict him on drugs and firearms charges. Both of these guys are people most of us would like to see in prison, but they should not be sent to prison on the basis of an illegal search of their phones.

"Cell phones differ in both a quantitative and qualitative sense from other objects that might be carried on an arrestee's person," wrote Chief Justice John Roberts. "Notably, modern cell phones have an immense storage capacity. Before cell phones, a search of a person was limited by physical realities and generally constituted only a narrow intrusion on privacy. But cell phones can store millions of pages of text, thousands of pictures, or hundreds of videos. This has several interrelated privacy consequences. First, a cell phone collects in one place many distinct types of infomation that reveal much more in combination than any isolated record. Second, the phone's capacity allows even just one type of information to convey far more than previously possible. Third, data on the phone can date back for years. In addition, an element of pervasiveness characterizes cell phones but not physical records. A decade ago officers might have occasionally stumbled across a highly personal item such as a diary, but today many of the more than 90% of American adults who own cell phones keep on their person a digital record of nearly every aspect of their lives."

The average person's cell phone might contain a combination of sensitive personal and work e-mails, photos of his children and perhaps a few "sexts" to his significant other. Some people may also leave tell-tale evidence of an extramarital affair or of criminal activity behind on their cell phones. In the case of the gang banger, the phone also contained photos and videos of his fellow gang members. The drug dealer's phone provided evidence of his many clients. To protect everyone's privacy, we have to require that the police seek a warrant before they search the cell phone of the drug dealer or the murderer, even if it makes their job a little harder. Privacy comes at a cost but it is a price worth paying.

The Supreme Court decision can be found at www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/13pdf/13-132—8l9c.pdf

 
 

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