By Suraj K. Sazawal In a decision that weighs heavily in favor of Fourth Amendment and privacy rights, the Supreme Court last week ruled that police officers must generally get a warrant before searching the cell phones of people they arrest. Curbing decades of police seizing and searching anything on a person, before even making an arrest, the unanimous decision in Riley v. California is a victory for civil liberties and protection for individuals against excessive government intrusion into their ever-expanding digital lives.
The top court, famously known for its old-fashioned ways, like not using email or allowing cameras to record arguments, was surprisingly astute in recognizing the way cell phones have become entrenched in our lives. “The term ‘cell phone’ is itself misleading shorthand,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts in his opinion. “[M]any of these devices are in fact minicomputers that also happen to have the capacity to be used as a telephone. They could just as easily be called cameras, video players, rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps, or newspapers.”
Because so much personal data can be found on most cell phones, searching them during a police stop would be similar to the police entering and searching a home without a warrant, the court ruled. There is no way of knowing how many people have been charged with a crime after having their cell phone searched.
“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. 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,” Roberts’ wrote. Civil liberties and privacy advocates hope the top court is not done reigning in government spying on Americans’ private lives.
In a recent blog post, Government Accountability Project’s Jesselyn Radack says this ruling “makes NSA’s questionable arguments for the legality of its mass surveillance operations even more untenable.” Steven Shapiro, the ACLU’s national legal director, described the court’s decision as “revolutionary” and said the protections guaranteed by our Constitution still apply even as technology progresses. “We have entered a new world,” Shapiro said, “but…our old values still apply and limit the government’s ability to rummage through the intimate details of our private lives.”
ADDITIONAL READING: Will Supremes Apply Cell Phone Privacy to Metadata Collection? By Marjorie Cohn