The Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that police must obtain a warrant before searching digital information on a cell phone or other electronic device seized from an individual who has been arrested. This decision served as a major affirmation of privacy rights in this increasingly technological age.
The unanimous 9-to-0 decision marks a landmark move in support of Fourth Amendment rights and signifies profound importance given the heightened privacy concerns of cell phones, tablets, and portable computers in public places throughout this hacker-prone society. With identity theft and cyber crime escalating exponentially, the decision sent a strong message to police that privacy rights and security concerns are not lighthearted manners. They cannot easily disregard these issues and must uphold the laws by using proper procedures.
Chief Justice John Roberts commented: “Modern cell phones are not just another technological convenience,” he emphasized. “With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans the ‘privacies of life,'” he remarked. “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,” the chief justice said.
In reaching its decision in which the Supreme Court ruled against warrantless searches of cell phones or other electronic devices, the justices rejected arguments by the Obama administration and the California Attorney General’s Office that law enforcement officials must be able to immediately search the contents of a cell phone or other electronic device when the device was found on a person at the time of his or her lawful arrest. Moreover, the justices also rejected a suggested secondary argument to allow police to conduct a limited search of a cell phone without a warrant whenever it was reasonable to believe the device contained evidence of the crime that prompted the arrest of the individual. Roberts commented the secondary argument provided no practical limit because it would still give authorities unlimited discretion to search at will among a person’s personal effects without due process.
In its decision, the Supreme Court established a ‘bright line’ rule that if police seize a cell phone or other electronic device during an arrest, they must seek approval from a neutral judge before searching the device for any evidence of crime. The chief justice assured authorities steps could be taken to secure the data on the device to prevent destruction of potential evidence and also stressed the warrant process is becoming more efficient. Moreover, the court recognized there might be instances of exigent (extraordinary) circumstances that required swift and decisive action. In such cases, the courts have recognized an exception to the warrant requirement, which would later require justification to a neutral judge on a case by case basis.
The Supreme Court decision reflects a recognition by the high court of a growing threat to privacy in the digital age. With vast amounts of personal records, photos, video, and other intimate information readily accessible on smart phones and other electronic devices, it is necessary to implement safeguards to ensure privacy rights and protection of personal data. The government had argued that once an individual is placed under arrest, he or she has a diminished right to privacy and that diminished privacy protection does not extend to anything found in their pockets. Under this argument, searching the contents of a cell phone should be considered no different from searching an arrestee’s pockets.
This argument was soundly rebuffed by the high court. The decision made specific reference to the fact that “modern cell phones, as a category, implicate privacy concerns far beyond those implicated by the search of a cigarette pack, a wallet, or a purse.” Modern cell phones are multifaceted and can be used for a variety of purposes, including cameras, video players, calendars, libraries, televisions, maps, or newspapers among many other potential uses.
Most people can neither carry around every piece of mail, picture taken, or news article they have viewed over the last several weeks nor would they be expected to do so. In order to accomplish such a feat, it would require some type of closed, secured container, which would require a warrant for lawful search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment. In this technological age, it is the individuals without electronic devices that contain various aspects of personal data collection that are the exceptions. Given the reasonable expectation of privacy and personal data protection, warrantless searches of items that contain such data are in violation of arrestees’ Fourth Amendment rights.
The Supreme Court decision that ruled against warrantless cell phone and other electronic device searches originated from two cases in which police used evidence discovered during warrantless searches of cell phones that individuals possessed at the time of their arrest. The phones contained images and other information police used as evidence to implicate arrestees in the commission of crimes.
By Leigh Haugh