WASHINGTON D.C., United States of America - On 25 June 2014 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that police officers need a warrant before they can search the cellphone of an arrested suspect. The unanimous 9-0 ruling was a major decision in favor of privacy rights at a time of increasing concern over the government’s encroachment on digital communications.
The Supreme Court ruling limited law enforcements right to search cellphones (Photo Courtesy of Reuters).
In an opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the court said, “we cannot deny that our decision today will have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime,” he added that the right to privacy “comes at a cost.”
Currently, law enforcement can search a person under arrest and whatever physical items are within reach to find weapons and preserve evidence. However, the Court noted that in today’s society smartphones carry a vast amount of sensitive data and cannot be compared to other items found in a search. “Modern cell phones…implicate privacy concerns far beyond those implicated by the search of a cigarette pack, a wallet or a purse,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote.
The court made its decision after weighing two separate cases, one from Massachusetts and one from California. While the cases were different in scope and the type of cellphone used, one was a flip cellphone the other a smartphone, the Court decided the two cases together, finding both searches unconstitutional.
Concern about increasing government encroachment on personal privacy has surged in the past year following the disclosures by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. “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 (country’s) Founders fought.” Chief Justice Roberts wrote.
In it’s opinion the Court noted that there would be some emergency situations in which a warrantless search will be permitted. The court held that the “exigent circumstances” exception to the warrant requirement would also be applied to cellphones. Thus, in a situation that is an imminent danger to life or the possibility that evidence will be destroyed may justify searching a cellphone without a warrant.
In a concurrence, Justice Samuel Alito opened the door to further exceptions stating that he would reconsider the question presented if Congress enacts legislation that draws reasonable distinctions based on the categories of information contained in the searched cellphone.