Supreme Court adapts to the times


A unanimous Supreme Court declared Wednesday that, in the face of new technology that has reshaped daily life, it will not “mechanically” apply old legal doctrines that offer Americans too little protection in novel digital circumstances.

The justices ruled that law enforcement officers cannot rummage through the electronic contents of an arrestee’s cellphone. In most cases, the officers must get a warrant first. This is an unambiguously sensible decision, showing that the court will not remain inert as the country strikes anew the balance between privacy and security. Rather, it will bound the debate with serious, basic limits on electronic search and seizure.

The justices considered two cases in which police officers confiscated and examined the phones of two men they had arrested. In one case, information on a suspect’s phone led officers to search his apartment, where they found drugs, a gun and ammunition. In the other, officers inspected photos, videos and text stored on a suspect’s phone to link him to a gang shooting. Both men claimed that, since the police had not obtained warrants, taking the electronic evidence violated their Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure.

To press that claim, their lawyers had to overcome several Supreme Court precedents that gave law enforcement officers relatively wide latitude to search through material on or around an arrestee’s person.

But the court rightly refused to draw a simplistic analogy between the physical objects a person can carry and the vast storehouse of digital material accessible through the average mobile phone. “That is like saying a ride on horseback is materially indistinguishable from a flight to the moon,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote. “Both are ways of getting from point A to point B, but little else justifies lumping them together.”