Court on cellphone search: 'Get a warrant'

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The Supreme Court on Wednesday outlawed warrantless police searches of cellphones in a decision that was hailed as a “revolutionary” victory for privacy rights and a powerful check against the prying eyes of government.

In a unanimous 9-0 ruling delivered by Chief Justice John Roberts, the court sided against the government in a pair of cases, concluding that police may not search cellphones belonging to people they arrest without a court’s permission.

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The justices parted with past rulings allowing police to examine items — such as a pack of cigarettes — found in the pockets of a person taken into custody. The court cited vast troves of data contained on today’s cellphones, which, for many Americans, hold “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,” Roberts wrote. “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.”

Ultimately, the court made a formal distinction between ordinary items found on the person of an individual being detained and ones with “immense storage capacity.”

The ruling’s implications are likely to ripple far beyond arrest protocol, according to personal liberty activists who cheered the opinion in the cases known as U.S. v. Wurie and Riley v. California.

Steven R. Shapiro, the national legal director of the ACLU, described the ruling as nothing short of “revolutionary.”

“We have entered a new world but, as the court today recognized, our old values still apply and limit the government’s ability to rummage through the intimate details of our private lives.”   

Amos Toh, a fellow at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, said the decision could prove to be a powerful protection against overzealous government searches in the future.

“Today’s ruling will go a long way in preventing our personal data from being unduly searched, stored, and abused without proper judicial oversight,” Toh said.

The closely watched case united liberals and libertarians against the government’s contention that phones can provide critical evidence about crimes suspects have committed, or about impending threats. 

Under the law, police can search suspects “incident to arrest” to find any weapons they might be carrying or evidence that could be destroyed.

The government argued that the standard should include cellphones, which contain a vast trove of information that can easily be erased.

“It avoids the destruction of evidence; it protects officer safety, and it allows the discovery of evidence that’s relevant to the crime of arrest to enable prosecution,” Michael Dreeben, the Justice Department’s deputy solicitor general, had argued before the court.

In rejecting that argument, the court acknowledged the breadth of the ruling.

Roberts noted the ubiquity of cellphones, “which are now such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy.”

Lawmakers seized on the ruling as validating a legislative push to update privacy laws to account for strides in technology.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) called the ruling a “wake-up call” for Congress to act on other kinds of digital privacy.

Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) are pushing changes to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act that would require police get a warrant before searching through someone’s old emails.

The original Electronic Communications Privacy Act dates back to 1986 and allows law enforcement agents to look at emails and other documents stored in the cloud as long as they are older than 180 days.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) also applauded the court’s finding that police need warrants to look at cellphones, and called upon his colleagues to approve his bill to extend the same requirement to the retrieval of GPS data.

“Our bipartisan GPS Act provides law enforcement with a clear mandate for when to obtain a warrant for the geolocation information of an American, and I aim to use this decision as a springboard to secure greater privacy rights in the days ahead,” Wyden said.

Julian Hattem contributed.

Updated at 8:33 p.m.