U.S. Courts Protect Cellphones from Warrantless Searches

by Matt Klassen on June 27, 2014

Modern mobile phones are not simply a “technological convenience,” the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday, stating that such devices now hold the “privacies of life,” and thus should be protected under the Fourth Amendment against unlawful search and seizure.

In a unanimous decision the Supreme Court held that cellphones should be protected from warrantless searches, ruling on two contentious cases where police found damning evidence after searching cellphones during the arrests of the respective suspects. The court acknowledged that its decision would indeed make law enforcement more difficult, but noted that, “Privacy comes at a cost.”

As Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, in the courts opinion the “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 decision comes as a victory for personal privacy, particularly in an age where much of one’s personal life is stored on their mobile devices. It sends a clear message that digital or not, our personal property is our own and safe from warrantless government intrusion.

Many of the justices involved in the case indicated in recent oral arguments that safeguards were needed against unrestricted, unwarranted searches on mobile devices. That concern made itself clear in Wednesday’s decision, with the judges making repeated reference to upholding the Fourth Amendment, which secures “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable search and seizure.”

The court made a distinction between cellphones and other such personal items we carry about on our person, clarifying that one’s cellphone is in actuality a powerful microcomputer, and just because people now have the capacity to carry around a cache of sensitive information doesn’t mean said information is accessible by law enforcement without proper legal authorization.

“Modern cell phones are not just another technological convenience,” the court’s opinion stated. “With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans ‘the privacies of life’ … 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.”

As I mentioned, on the one hand this decision stands as a benchmark for privacy protection. “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 Steven R. Shapiro, the national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Of course on the other hand such decisions are distinctly bittersweet, as this revolutionary decision means in the two cases at the heart of this matter, that two men who were clearly involved in some sort of criminal activity will now be set free, not because they are innocent, but simply because law enforcement policies failed to keep pace with technological advancement.

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