In a sweeping victory for personal privacy rights in the digital age, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled Wednesday that police generally may not search the cellphone of someone they arrest without first obtaining a search warrant. The opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts recognizes that modern cellphones now carry a wealth of personal information that police should not be able to indiscriminately rummage through. It echoes a Florida Supreme Court opinion from last year, and it provides clear protection for all Americans from unreasonable searches.
In a sweeping opinion, Roberts wrote that cellphones “are now 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.” He said searching a cellphone without a warrant is not comparable to searching a pack of cigarettes and even more intrusive than house searches because police could find information that would be unavailable in a home, such as electronic records tracking a person’s movements.
“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,” Roberts wrote.
The court opinion will not make some law enforcement officials happy. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri argued last year against requiring search warrants to search cellphones of suspects. The sheriff complained about the time it takes to seek a search warrant and warned that evidence could be wiped from a portable electronic device if law enforcement had to wait. But as Roberts noted, “privacy comes at a cost” and the Fourth Amendment protects Americans from unreasonable searches and seizures.
The Florida Supreme Court reached a similar conclusion last year in a case involving a robbery of a convenience store in Jacksonville, just as state lawmakers were considering legislation to require a search warrant to search cellphones in most cases. The U.S. Supreme Court took up the issue because of conflicting opinions from federal appellate courts. One appeals court ruled in favor of privacy in a case where police used a Boston drug suspect’s cellphone to find his address and then obtained a search warrant to search his home. Another appeals court ruled in favor of San Diego police who pulled over a driver and used information on his phone to link him to a street gang and a car used in a shooting.
Even with the court decision, the police still have some leeway. They can make an effort to stop the content on cellphones from being erased or encrypted from a remote place, Roberts wrote. They also can still search cellphones without a warrant in case-specific situations where officers have reasonable fear about their safety or the lives of others. But otherwise, the direction is simple to law enforcement officials who want to search a suspect’s cellphone: Get a warrant.
The Obama administration, which has had little respect for personal privacy, argued against requiring the search warrants for cellphones. And this U.S. Supreme Court has not been particularly sensitive to privacy issues. But Wednesday’s unanimous opinion was an undisputed win for civil libertarians and the privacy rights of all Americans.