Americans’ privacy might not yet be extinct, but it’s endangered, in part because of the choices we make on a daily basis.
But the Supreme Court last week shored it up in an area of increasing importance in this digital age. The justices ruled that in almost all instances, law enforcement officials must acquire a search warrant to search the cell phones of individuals under arrest. That the ruling was unanimous, albeit with a partial concurrence by Justice Samuel Alito, is particularly gratifying on a court whose ideological differences reflect the partisan political divide.
The ruling is a setback for law enforcement, which has long been able to search an arrested person’s personal effects without a warrant and argued that cell phones should fall under the same category as wallets and other items individuals might have when they are arrested.
The court’s reply was a resounding no. Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the opinion, said cell phones “are now such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they are an important feature of the human anatomy.”
Importantly, the exclusion is not absolute. Police can examine a cell phone to ensure that it can’t be used as a weapon, and police can conduct a warrantless search in certain emergencies.
The rulings stem from two criminal cases, one from Massachusetts and one from California. In both, the individuals challenged their convictions, saying evidence found on their cell phones should not have been used in their trials because police had obtained it without warrants. Although the two cases differed in some respects — for instance, one defendant used a flip phone while the other used a smart phone — the justices ruled that both searches violated the Fourth Amendment. That amendment states in part, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated…”
A generation ago, few people owned a cell or mobile phone. Yet in referring to the Fourth Amendment, justices recalled that it exists in large part because of British policies during in the 18th century “to rummage through homes in an unrestrained search for evidence of criminal activity.” As the justices noted, widespread outrage at such searches was a contributing factor in the Revolution.
In ruling most warrantless searches of cell phones unconstitutional, the Supreme Court protects Americans more than two centuries later from similarly unrestrained searches for evidence.