Today in what could be a landmark case for the future of civilian digital privacy rights, the United States Supreme Court ruled that police now need a warrant in order to search the mobile phones of an arrestee . The basis of the ruling is on the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution, which prohibits “unreasonable search and seizure.” This comes at a time when civilians are becoming increasing cautious of their governments, and the ability of those governments to encroach upon a civilian’s digital communications. The court ruled unanimously in favor of the decision, but did say there are special emergency situations when a warrant would not be needed. The Department of Justice was imploring the court to vote against it being necessary to have a warrant in order to search a mobile phone.
Many were surprised by the candid opinion that Chief Justice Roberts wrote on the decision because the Supreme Court Justices’ seemed out of touch with modern technology in the oral arguments before the case. Roberts’ openly said that he believed the only reason someone would have two different cell phones was because they were dealing drugs. Justice Sotomayor mistakenly called the television and movie streaming company, Netflix, “Netflick,” and Justice Scalia was under the impression that the Home Box Office inc., or HBO, was offered over the air-waves for free, and not a paid television service. The average age of the Supreme Court Justices according to a New York Times article published on Wednesday is 68.
In the official Opinion of the Court written by Chief Justice John Roberts, who is one of the younger members at only 55, he explains that cell phones vary from other items that may be held on an arrestee’s person. He goes on to explain that many mobile phones are in fact “minicomputers” that also happen to have the capacity to be used as a telephone and that they could easily be called any number of other names such as televisions, maps, libraries, calendars, cameras, video players, rolodexes, albums, tape recorders, diaries or newspapers. He goes on to note that modern cell phones hold an “immense storage capacity,” and that by searching them an officer can find so much more private information than in an era prior to cell phones, in which a physical search of a person constituted “only a narrow intrusion of privacy.”
A reason that the United States Supreme Court decided to increase privacy rules for cell phones is because contemporary mobile phones can hold hundreds of videos, thousands of pictures and millions of pages of texts, where as before cellphones a person was not carrying all of that information around with them. The immense amount of personal information that can be stored in a cell phone is mind-boggling. There could be addresses, notes, bank statements, videos or prescriptions for medical conditions on a phone, many of which do not pertain to the reason the person may have been arrested in the first place.
Many critics of the decision, especially those in criminal justice field, have said that the immediate search of an arrestee’s mobile device is critical to protecting evidence from being encrypted, locked or even destroyed remotely. Ironically a number of law enforcement agencies have been advocating a “kill switch” that could delete personal information from a mobile device if it is stolen. Many law enforcement agencies make it a top priority to search a suspects cell phone once they are arrested, so the ruling may have a long reaching impact in many jurisdictions across the country. A Justice Department spokesperson said that the government would ensure that federal law enforcement agents complied with the ruling given down on Wednesday by the United States Supreme Court giving mobile phones increased privacy protection.
By B. Taylor Rash