Supreme Court Rules Warrants Mandatory For Cell Phone Searches
June 25, 2014

Supreme Court Rules Warrants Mandatory For Cell Phone Searches

Alan McStravick for - Your Universe online

The Supreme Court handed down a single ruling after having heard two separate cases dealing with the issue of expectation of privacy as it pertains to one's cell phone or personal electronic device. In a nearly unanimous decision, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that searches of digital devices for information does not share commensurate status with searches performed by law enforcement for contraband after having made an arrest. In short, if you want to look inside someone's phone from now on, you're going to need to get a warrant.

In his opinion, written for the majority, Roberts acknowledged today's decision would place a barrier before police in their fight against crime. However, removing that barrier from in front of law enforcement would not appropriate as there is no justification for why they shouldn't have to secure a warrant prior to searching cellphones and smartphones.

“We cannot deny that our decision today will have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime,” Roberts opinion read. “Cell phones have become important tools … among members of criminal enterprises and can provide valuable incriminating information about dangerous criminals. Privacy comes at a cost.”

With the exception of Justice Samuel Alito, the court was in full agreement and joined Robert's majority opinion. Alito's main contention with the ruling was not a fundamental disagreement with the premise, just that he stated he'd prefer to allow state legislatures to have the leeway to establish the rules limiting warrant requirement in certain circumstances.

The ruling was based on two separate cases from either side of the US. The first, Riley v. California, centered around a man initially pulled over for expired tags on his vehicle. After searching his vehicle, police found loaded handguns. Later searching his telephone, they were able to determine both gang affiliation and possible connection to another crime. Riley was sentenced to multiple years in prison due to evidence found on his own phone.

The second case, United States v. Wurie, from Massachusetts, involved the defendant being arrested after a suspected drug deal. While in police custody, law enforcement used Wurie's phone to locate his residence and then collected more evidence at the house intended to be used in his conviction. Wurie's case was overturned by the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals who ruled that the manner in which law enforcement went about in collecting evidence was a clear violation of Mr. Wurie's 4th Amendment rights.

While privacy advocates have cited the vast amount of data stored both on a person's phone and, in more recent times, in the 'cloud,' as a primary reason for protection from search via warrant, prosecutors and law enforcement have countered that officers need to be able to search a suspect for both safety and to preserve evidence that could be erased or destroyed.

In ruling that law enforcement must now secure warrants before performing searches of an individual's electronic devices, the Court has provided guidance on how police are to comport themselves in the process of an investigation.

Our Supreme Court is having to listen to arguments and hand down rulings for situations that didn't exist even a decade ago. Technology is a fast moving current and it is a testament to the high court that they can recognize the place where technology fits in the intent of the framers of our Constitution.