Thank you, honorable justices. This time you came down on the right side of history in a big way.
In an emphatic defense of privacy in the digital age, a unanimous Supreme Court ruled Wednesday police generally may not search the cellphones of people they arrest without first getting search warrants.
For years, the American Civil Liberties Union had been advocating for this, in one case since 2010. The national ACLU, the ACLU of Florida, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Center for Democracy & Technology, and National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers had all been calling for cellphones to be treated more as part of a person’s home than as inanimate items in a pocket or purse.
That case started with four people whose cellphone location records were taken by police without a warrant. The location records should have been private, according to the ACLU and its allies.
“By recognizing that the digital revolution has transformed our expectations of privacy, today’s decision is itself revolutionary and will help to protect the privacy rights of all Americans,” said American Civil Liberties Union Legal Director Steven Shapiro in a statement. “We have entered a new world but, as the court today recognized, our old values still apply and limit the government’s ability to rummage through the intimate details of our private lives.”
Previously, cellphones were treated as if they were a pack of cigarettes, a pocketknife, or a wallet, something police could legitimately look at when a person was arrested. But technology has gotten ahead of the law, as it tends to do. A cellphone is a library, a filing cabinet, a second brain, a trail of breadcrumbs, and often holds video, audio, and still pictures that tell a story that should be considered private.
Cellphones are unlike anything else police may find on someone they arrest, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court. They are “not just another technological convenience,” he said, but ubiquitous, increasingly powerful computers that contain vast quantities of personal, sensitive information.
“With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans the privacies of life,” Roberts declared. So the message to police about what they should do before rummaging through a cellphone’s contents following an arrest is simple, “Get a warrant.”
The chief justice acknowledged that barring searches would affect law enforcement, but he said, “Privacy comes at a cost.”
By ruling as it did, the court chose not to extend earlier decisions from the 1970s—when cellphone technology was not yet available—that allow police to empty a suspect’s pockets and examine whatever they find to ensure officers’ safety and prevent the destruction of evidence.
Troves of Sensitive Information
The Obama administration and the state of California, defending cellphone searches, said the phones should have no greater protection from a search than anything else police find. But the defendants in the current cases, backed by civil libertarians, librarians, and news media groups, argued that cellphones, especially smartphones, can store troves of sensitive personal information.
Under the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, police generally need a warrant before they can conduct a search. The warrant itself must be based on “probable cause,” evidence that a crime has been committed.
In the cases decided Wednesday, one defendant carried a smartphone, while the other carried an older flip phone. The police looked through both without first getting search warrants.
Roberts said there’s no comparison between cellphones and packages of cigarettes and other items that were under scrutiny in earlier cases.
A ride on horseback and a flight to the moon both “are ways of getting from point A to point B, but little else justifies lumping them together,” he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.