SCOTUS rules coppers must get a warrant to search cellphones

Coppers snooping cellphones

In an emphatic defense of privacy in the digital age, a unanimous Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that police generally may not search the cellphones of people they arrest without first getting search warrants.

Cellphones are unlike anything else police may find on someone they arrest, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court. They are “not just another technological convenience,” he said, but ubiquitous, increasingly powerful computers that contain vast quantities of personal, sensitive information.

“With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans the privacies of life,” Roberts declared. So the message to police about what they should do before rummaging through a cellphone’s contents following an arrest is simple: “Get a warrant…”

The Obama administration and the state of California, defending cellphone searches, said the phones should have no greater protection from a search than anything else police find. But the defendants in the current cases, backed by civil libertarians, librarians and news media groups, argued that cellphones, especially smartphones, can store troves of sensitive personal information.

“By recognizing that the digital revolution has transformed our expectations of privacy, today’s decision is itself revolutionary and will help to protect the privacy rights of all Americans,” said American Civil Liberties Union legal director Steven Shapiro…

In the cases decided Wednesday, one defendant carried a smartphone, while the other carried an older flip phone. The police looked through both without first getting search warrants…

A ride on horseback and a flight to the moon both “are ways of getting from point A to point B, but little else justifies lumping them together,” Roberts said…

The decision will protect cellphones from warrantless searches going forward, but it may not be of much help to defendants in pending cases, or those whose convictions are final, said lawyer Gerry Morris…He said that courts could allow evidence to be used from police searches of cellphones that were done in “good faith” and relied on the law as it stood when the searches were conducted.

Still a two-fold victory. We’ve acquired the sort of protection many folks – from geeks to civil libertarians – agree we need in a digital age. Now, the task remains to take the modernized version of privacy and stick in the eye of paranoids ranging from the White House and Congress to the NSA.

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