Police cannot generally search cellphones without a warrant when they are arresting someone, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a unanimous decision Wednesday that weighs heavily in favor of Fourth Amendment and privacy rights.
Cellphones are not the same as other physical objects, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the opinion. "One of the most notable distinguishing features of modern cell phones is their immense storage capacity," he wrote. "Before cell phones, a search of a person was limited by physical realities and tended as a general matter to constitute only a narrow intrusion on privacy. ... Most people cannot lug around every piece of mail they have received for the past several months, every picture they have taken, or every book or article they have read -- nor would they have any reason to attempt to do so."
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But with a cellphone, "the sum of an individual's private life can be reconstructed through a thousand photographs labeled with dates, locations, and descriptions; the same cannot be said of a photograph or two of loved ones tucked into a wallet."
Because so much data can be found by searching even an inexpensive cellphone, police must in most cases obtain warrants to search them, the court ruled. "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."
It's also the case that not all data that police could retrieve and examine on a cellphone is actually stored on the device, the ruling notes, offering an explanation of cloud computing and the legal ramifications around obtaining information stored remotely.
The ruling involved two separate cases, one from California and one from Massachusetts. In each case information obtained from police searching cellphones of the defendants led to them being charged and convicted.
In the California case, David Riley was arrested for driving with expired registration tags and it was then found that his license was suspended. His car was impounded and an "inventory search" was conducted on it, which found concealed and loaded firearms, as well as items associated with a street gang. Police seized the cellphone he had in his pants pocket, accessed information on it and saw what they thought were slang terms for members of the Bloods gang in text messages or a contacts list. After his arrest, a detective who specializes in gangs examined the phones contents to look for evidence.
Riley was convicted on weapons charges and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison after a lower court ruled that evidence seized in the cellphone search did not violate his Fourth Amendment right to unreasonable searches and seizures.
In the Massachusetts case, Brima Wurie was seen allegedly making a drug sale from a car. After he was arrested and taken to a police station, two cellphones were seized from him, one of which was receiving repeated calls from a source the phone identified as coming from "my house." Police accessed the call log, obtained the phone number and used an online phone directory to trace it to an apartment building. They then got a warrant to search the apartment where they found 215 grams of crack cocaine, marijuana, drug paraphernalia, a firearm, ammunition and cash.