SCOTUS Rules Warrantless Cellphone Searches Unconstitutional
In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled last Wednesday that law enforcement officials must obtain warrants in order to search the cell phones of those under arrest. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion, “the fact that an arrestee has diminished privacy interests does not mean that the Fourth Amendment falls out of the picture entirely.” This is a definite departure from previous policies, which allowed police officers to collect evidence through warrantless cellphone searches.
The Chief Justice stated:
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.
In this decision, Roberts dismissed law enforcement officials’ claims that searching a cell phone is no different than searching a suspect’s pockets, which has never required a warrant. Roberts addressed this by saying, “that is like saying a ride on horseback is materially indistinguishable from a flight to the moon.” Modern cell phones, with their vast capabilities, bring about entirely new privacy concerns that transcend a simple pocket search.
Warrantless searches have been justified, and sometimes are necessary. They are often conducted in order to protect police officers from hidden weapons, and to prevent suspects from destroying evidence. However, the court found that neither of those rationales applied to searching through the data on someone’s cell phone.
Understandably, police officers are concerned with the impact that this ruling will have on fighting crime. If a police officer must take the time to obtain a warrant before they can search someone’s phone, then that person will have the opportunity to erase any incriminating data. Roberts wrote:
We cannot deny that our decision today will have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime. Cell phones have become important tools in facilitating coordination and communication among members of criminal enterprises, and can provide valuable incriminating information about dangerous criminals. Privacy comes at a cost.
However, according to Roberts, “remote wiping can be fully prevented by disconnecting a phone from the network.” He says that police officers can also remove a phone’s battery or simply turn the phone off.
This ruling was built on several privacy rulings in recent years, particularly the cases of United States v. Wurie and Riley v. California.
Police in Boston arrested Birma Wurie on drug trafficking charges in 2007. Police went through the call log on Wurie’s flip phone without first obtaining a warrant, and found several calls from a number labeled as “my house”. They then used reverse trajectory to trace the address, obtained a warrant, and found illegal drugs and firearms. While they did have a warrant to search the home, they never obtained one to search the phone that led them there.
In 2009, San Diego police detained David Riley for driving with expired tags. In their search of his car, police discovered two concealed firearms and seized Riley’s smartphone without a warrant. Stored text messages, photos, and videos on the phone led the police to believe that Riley had gang connections and was involved in several prior gang-related crimes.
In both of these cases, the defendants sought to suppress the evidence that was obtained without a warrant, and neither succeeded. The evidence was let in and they were both convicted, leading to a series of appeals that eventually reached the Supreme Court. The court addressed the privacy issues in both cases, but seemed less worried about police officers searching limited-capacity flip phones than smart phones that can hold large quantities of personal data. Justice Elena Kagan commented that, “most people now do carry their lives on cell phones,” so it is important that peoples’ Fourth Amendment rights are protected when it comes to personal information on smartphones.
In the age of constantly changing technology, the protections set out by the Fourth Amendment are unwavering. These technological advances raise many questions about one’s right to privacy when information is becoming more accessible. This Supreme Court decision is an important step in assuring that peoples’ rights are protected, despite these rapid changes in technology.
Brittany Alzfan (@BrittanyAlzfan) is a student at the George Washington University majoring in Criminal Justice. She was a member of Law Street’s founding Law School Rankings team during the summer of 2014. Contact Brittany at staff@LawStreetMedia.com.
Featured image courtesy of [dalioPhoto via Flickr]