Defense attorneys have been fighting to protect an individuals’ right to privacy in the contents of their cellphones for several years. But time and time again the trial and appellate courts of both State and Federal judicial systems ruled that law enforcement officials, following an arrest, were allowed to seize and search the contents of the arrestees’ cellphone without first obtaining a warrant from a Judge.
Today the United States Supreme Court weighed in on the matter and issued a unanimous opinion stating that this behavior must stop. The impact of this ruling is going to be explored and analyzed for a long time to come. The impact on law enforcement officials who want to search cellphones is clear, they must get a warrant. However, the boundaries of the ruling as applied to other electronic devices such as the Apple iPad, Windows Surface, other tablets, laptops, and even cell phone records will be defined over time.
The basis for the Opinion is the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which states:
“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
Writing the Opinion of the Court, Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., states:
“Our cases have recognized that the Fourth Amendment was the founding generation’s response to the reviled “general warrants” and “writs of assistance” of the colonial era, which allowed British officers to rummage through homes in an unrestrained search for evidence of criminal activity. Opposition to such searches was in fact one of the driving forces behind the Revolution itself. In 1761, the patriot James Otis delivered a speech in Boston denouncing the use of writs of assistance. A young John Adams was there, and he would later write that “[e]very man of a crowded audience appeared to me to go away, as I did, ready to take arms against writs of assistance.” According to Adams, Otis’s speech was “the first scene of the first act of opposition to the arbitrary claims of Great Britain. Then and there the child Independence was born.”
“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,” 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.” (citations omitted)
For analysis and opinion of this very important ruling see:
Lyle Denniston, Opinion analysis: Broad cloak of privacy for cellphones, SCOTUSblog (Jun. 25, 2014), http://www.scotusblog.com/2014/06/opinion-analysis-broad-cloak-of-privacy-for-cellphones/
Adam Liptak, Major Ruling Shields Privacy of Cellphone: Supreme Court Says Phones Can’t Be Searched Without a Warrant, nytimes.com (Jun. 25, 2014), http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/26/us/supreme-court-cellphones-search-privacy.html?_r=1
Robert Barnes, Supreme Court Says Police Must Get Warrants For Most Cellphone Searches, washingtonpost.com (Jun. 25, 2014), http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/supreme-court-police-must-get-warrants-for-most-cellphone-searches/2014/06/25/e2ff1326-fc6b-11e3-8176-f2c941cf35f1_story.html
David G. Savage, Supreme Court Rules Police Cannot Search Smartphones Without Warrant, latimes.com (Jun. 25, 2014), http://www.latimes.com/nation/nationnow/la-na-nn-supreme-court-search-20140613-story.html