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Supreme Court issues historic ruling to protect your cellphone rights

June 25, 2014 by NCC Staff


A unanimous Supreme Court said on Wednesday that all Americans have Fourth Amendment rights to protect their cellphones from unwarranted search by the police.

IPhone_3G_vs_Blackjack_IIThe definitive ruling, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, was about two cases involving police searching a flip phone and a smartphone without going to a judge for a search warrant. The detailed decision was read from the bench by Roberts, and it could have an impact on privacy issues beyond cellphones.

Link: Read The Full Opinion

“The police generally may not, without a warrant, search digital information on a cell phone seized from an individual who has been arrested,” Roberts said in his 28-page opinion, adding that the same emergency exceptions apply to cellphone searches as other physical searches by police.

"Modern cell phones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans the privacies of life,” said Roberts. “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.”

Video: Lawyers who argued Riley case appear at the National Constitution Center

Justice Samuel Alito, in a concurring opinion, recognized that the Court’s ruling could present issues to law enforcement officials.

“Law enforcement officers need clear rules regarding searches incident to arrest, and it would take many cases and many years for the courts to develop more nuanced rules. And during that time, the nature of the electronic devices that ordinary Americans carry on their persons would continue to change,” he said.

"We cannot deny that our decision today will have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime," Roberts also said. "Privacy comes at a cost."

The ruling effectively puts cellphones and similar devices in a separate class from wallets, briefcases, papers, and vehicles, which can be examined without a warrant if there is probable cause that a crime has been committed, or if the search is needed for safety reasons, or to prevent the destruction of evidence.

The first case, Riley v. California, involved a Samsung smartphone. The second case, United States v. Wurie, was focused on an older-generation flip phone with limited computing ability.

Both cases examined the power of the police, acting without a search warrant in certain circumstances, to look at information stored on a cellphone taken from a suspect at the time of an arrest.

In 2009, David Leon Riley was convicted of shooting at an occupied car, attempted murder, and assault with a semi-automatic weapon.  He wasn’t arrested at the time of the shooting, but when he was later stopped for driving with expired license plates, police took the smartphone he had, and twice looked its contents, without a warrant.

In the Wurie case, Boston police in 2007 saw Brima Wurie make an apparent drug transaction using his car.  They followed Wurie from the scene, and arrested him. Wurie was at the police station, when the officers seized two cellphones from him.   One of the phones was a flip phone that was receiving calls from a number identified as from Wurie’s house.

The officers examined the phone’s call log and also saw a picture of a woman with a baby. They used the information to find the house, and gather more evidence after getting a warrant, and later said they limited their search on the flip phone to those two items.

The cases were being closely watched by legal observers because they presented the Justices with the challenge of relying on past Court privacy decisions, or setting a new course based on the current (and future) technology involved with communications devices.

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