NYT calls for warrant to search phones

The Supreme Court should require police officers to get a warrant if they want to search people’s cellphones, according to The New York Times editorial board.

In an op-ed on Monday, the paper said that smartphones are actually “personal computers that happen to include a phone function,” and deserve the same legal protections that exist for computers at someone’s house.

“For better or worse, mobile phones have become repositories of our daily lives, and will become only more powerful over time,” the Times said. “As a rule, the police should have to get a warrant to search them.”

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On Tuesday, the high court will take up two cases on the subject that are being closely watched by privacy advocates.

In one, police opened an alleged Boston drug dealer’s phone after it received multiple calls. They used information from the phone’s call log to track down the man’s house where they found a gun, drugs and money.

In another case, San Diego police took a person’s cellphone after stopping him for having expired tags. They found guns in the car and then searched the phone for photos and videos, which ultimately led to the man’s conviction on gang-related charges.

In neither case did police have a warrant before first going through the suspects’ phones.

Under the law, officers are allowed to search suspects “incident to arrest” to make sure that they are not carrying any weapons or trying to destroy evidence.

Previously, that was “was limited by the constraints on what a person could physically carry,” the Times noted, but “modern mobile phones have obliterated that rationale.”

“In other words, permitting police officers to search a mobile phone, or any digital storage device, essentially gives them access to someone’s entire life; allowing them to do so without a warrant renders the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures meaningless," the editorial board said.