Supreme Court Rules Cell Phones Generally Are Protected From Police Searches Without A Warrant

“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,” the chief justice says.

© Gary Cameron / Reuters / Reuters

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that cell phones are generally protected from police searches without a warrant, a broad ruling recognizing the changes that smartphones have made to daily life.

“[O]fficers must generally secure a warrant before conducting … a search” of data on cell phones, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court.

“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,” he concluded. “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.”

The justices were unanimous in the court’s ultimate resolution of the cases, although Justice Samuel Alito wrote separately to discuss some differences he had with the chief justice’s opinion for the court.

The justices were faced with cases asking how changes in technology should affect the limits on searches of smartphones after arrest — and, when the court heard argument in the cases in April, several justices expressed concerns about the broad range of information and services stored in today’s phones.

“The term ‘cell phone’ is itself misleading shorthand; many of these devices are in fact minicomputers that also happen to have the capacity to be used as a telephone,” Roberts wrote for the court. “They could just as easily be called cameras, video players, rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps, or newspapers.”

In finding that the general “search incident to arrest” exception to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement did not apply to data stored on cell phones, Roberts also noted that “the exigent circumstances exception” — when imminent destruction of evidence or similar circumstances apply — means that, even under Wednesday’s ruling, “[T]here is no reason to believe that law enforcement officers will not be able to address some of the more extreme hypotheticals that have been suggested.”

The first case involved David Leon Riley, who was found with photos and notes on his phone that police used to show involvement in gang-related activity. After Riley’s arrest, police found notations in his text messages and contacts, as well as photos and videos stored on the phone, that led California to charge him for attempted murder in a previous shooting.

The second involved Brima Wurie, in whose case drugs were found by obtaining the defendant’s home address through his flip phone. When the phrase “my home” came up in an incoming call made to Wurie after his arrest, police examined the missed call, found the phone number associated with what Wurie had labeled “my home,” searched a reverse directory to find the house, and went to the home in question — where they found drugs.

update

In response to the decision, Justice Department spokeswoman Ellen Canale said in a statement, “The Department will work with its law enforcement agencies to ensure full compliance with this decision. We will make use of whatever technology is available to preserve evidence on cell phones while seeking a warrant, and we will assist our agents in determining when exigent circumstances or another applicable exception to the warrant requirement will permit them to search the phone immediately without a warrant. Our commitment to vigorously enforcing the criminal laws and protecting the public while respecting the privacy interests protected by the Fourth Amendment is unwavering.”

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