Unanimous Supreme Court Holds: Police Need Warrants to Search Cellphone Data

The Supreme Court in a unanimous ruling by Chief Justice John Roberts, said that information contained in modern handheld devices is constitutionally protected. The Supreme Court rejected arguments that cellphones fell under a longstanding exception to the warrant requirement. That exception allowed police to search the contents of a suspects clothing to ensure the suspect was unarmed and / or destroy evidence.

This ruling was viewed by some as a sweeping victory for privacy rights in the digital age. The decision will offer protection against warrantless searches to the 12 million people arrested every year, many for minor offenses. Some believe the ruling will very likely apply to searches of tablets and laptop computers.

In article dated June 25, 2014, The Wall Street Journal quoted Orin S. Kerr, a law professor at George Washington University as stating “This is a bold opinion. It is the first computer-search case, and it says we are in a new digital age. You can’t apply the old rules anymore.”

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing for the court, acknowledged how pervasive cellphones are in today’s world. He he said, “such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy.” And that their contents are protected from routine searches. Chief Justice Roberts wrote, that the use of “general warrants,” that “allowed British officers to rummage through homes in an unrestrained search for evidence of criminal activity” was one of the factors in the American Revolution. He added that “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.”

In other criminal cases, this Supreme Court has not been particularly sympathetic to defendants and other complainants who have been arrested. Our state and federal courts have often allowed warrantless searches in connection with arrests because of the need for the safety of an officer and the public, i.e. armed suspect or to prevent a suspect from destroying evidence.

Chief Justice Roberts wrote that “once an officer has secured a phone and eliminated any potential physical threats, however, data on the phone can endanger no one.” The Court also noted that the police may turn off a phone, remove its battery or take other reasonable steps to prevent the remote possibility of evidence being destroyed by “remote wiping” or other encryption programs.

Chief Justice Roberts commented that should the police confront an authentic “now or never” under the concept of “exigent circumstances” warrantless search is permitted under constitutional law.

Chief Justice Roberts wrote “According to one poll, nearly three-quarters of smartphone users report being within five feet of their phones most of the time, with 12% admitting that they even use their phones in the shower.” He recognized the reality that a cellphone is much more than a phone commenting that “ They could just as easily be called cameras, video players, Rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps or newspapers.”

Chief Justice Roberts said “Cellphones have become important tools in facilitating coordination and communication among members of criminal enterprises, and can provide valuable incriminating information about dangerous criminals.” However he went on to say that “Privacy comes at a cost.”

While the privacy rights of millions have been protected from government intrusion how many people out there post everything for the world to see. From personal the personal to the intimate to criminal activity? The law does not protect one from their own folly does it?

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