Supreme Court votes unanimously to shield cellphone privacy

  • Article by: ADAM LIPTAK , New York Times
  • Updated: June 25, 2014 - 9:25 PM

Ruling likely will also affect police searches of tablet and laptop computers.

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April 29, 2014: A Supreme Court visitor using his cellphone to take a photo of the court in Washington.

– In a major statement on privacy rights in the digital age, the Supreme Court on Wednesday unanimously ruled that police need warrants to search the cellphones of people they arrest.

Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the court, said the vast amount of data on modern cellphones must be protected from routine inspection.

The old rules, Roberts said, cannot be applied to “modern 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.”

The courts have long allowed warrantless searches in connection with arrests, saying they are justified by the need to protect police officers and prevent evidence destruction.

But Roberts said neither justification applied to digital data accessible via cellphone.

Ninety percent of Americans have them, he wrote, and they contain “a digital record of nearly every aspect of their lives — from the mundane to the intimate.”

Even the word “cellphone” is a misnomer, he said. “They could just as easily be called cameras, video players, Rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps or newspapers,” he wrote.

The fact that individuals carry such a record so casually “does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought,” he wrote.

While the decision will offer protection to the 12 million people arrested every year, its impact probably will be much broader. The ruling is likely to apply to searches of tablet and laptop computers.

“This is a bold opinion,” said Orin Kerr, a law professor at George Washington University. “It says we are in a new digital age.”

Roberts acknowledged that the decision would make law enforcement more difficult.

“Cellphones have become important tools in facilitating coordination and communication among members of criminal enterprises, and can provide valuable incriminating information about dangerous criminals,” he wrote. “Privacy comes at a cost.”

The court heard arguments in two cases and issued one decision. The first case arose from the arrest of David L. Riley, who was pulled over in San Diego in 2009 for having expired vehicle registration. Police found guns in his car and entries on his smartphone that they associated with a gang.

A search of the phone led to information that linked him to a shooting. He was convicted of attempted murder. A California appeals court said neither search required a warrant.

The second case involved a search of the call log of the flip phone of Brima Wurie, who was arrested in 2007 in Boston and charged with gun and drug crimes. The federal appeals court in Boston last year threw out the evidence found on Wurie’s phone.

The Justice Department, in its Supreme Court briefs, said cellphones are not materially different from wallets, purses or address books.

Roberts disagreed. “That is like saying a ride on horseback is not materially indistinguishable from a flight to the moon,” the chief justice wrote.

 

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