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Supreme Court Rules Warrantless Cell Phone Searches Are Unconstitutional

In a unanimous opinion, the Supreme Court ruled that police cannot search cell phones without a warrant.
Supreme Court Rules Warrantless Cell Phone Searches Are Unconstitutional

The U.S. Supreme Court combined both cell phone cases and ruled that police cannot search suspects' cell phones without first obtaining a warrant. Chief Justice Roberts wrote the opinion and read it from the bench.

From the SCOTUSblog live blog, Tom Goldstein writes:

This is a sweeping endorsement of digital privacy.

"Cell phones differ in both a quantitative and qualitative sense from other objects that might be carried on an arrestee's person" that can be searche[d] without a warrant.

The Court does not even permit warrantless searches that are related to the reasons for an arrest.

"Modern cell phones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans the privacies of life.

MSNBC:

The court held that the “exigent circumstances” exception to the warrant requirement also applied to cell phones – that is, imminent danger to life or the possibility that evidence would be destroyed might justify searching a phone without a warrant. Justice Samuel Alito, in a concurrence, opened the door to further exceptions. Alito wrote that he would “reconsider the question presented here if either Congress or state legislatures, after assessing the legitimate needs of law enforcement and the privacy interests of cell phone owners, enact legislation that draws reasonable distinctions based on categories of information or perhaps other variables.”

Civil libertarian groups argued that advances in technology mean that the right of individuals to be “secure in their persons, houses, papers or effects” as guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution mean that police should seek warrants before rifling through suspects’ mobile devices. The government has countered that those same technological advancements aid criminals, and that remote wiping and encryption could be used to destroy or conceal evidence of serious crimes. At oral argument, the justices seemed split over where to draw the line for when police should seek a warrant to search a mobile device, and some seemed confused about modern social media applications.

Yet ultimately the high court was unanimous in its judgment. Roberts’ opinion embraced the arguments long advanced by civil liberties groups. “A cell phone search would typically expose to the government far more than the most exhaustive search of a house,” he wrote. “A phone not only contains in digital form many sensitive records previously found in the home; it also contains a broad array of private information never found in a home in any form—unless the phone is.”

From the opinion, it seems that the justices were less confused about technology and social media than some thought. It also sets a bright line standard for privacy that can be applied to other situations.

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