In a broad, unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that police must have a warrant before searching a cellphone belonging to a person who’s been arrested. The ruling was particularly striking for the extent to which the Court went in affirming the idea that technological change demands a reconsideration of privacy protections—an assertion that could have big implications in the debate about the government’s data collection programs.
“Modern cellphones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans ‘the privacies of life,’” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts. “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. 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.”
The ruling covered two cases in which police used information found on arrestees’ cellphones to tie them to a crime. In the first, David Riley was pulled over for driving with expired registration tags, and was subsequently found to have a suspended license and concealed handguns under the hood of his car. When officers searched the smart phone in his back pocket they discovered photos and other information tying him to the Bloods gang. Police traced the guns to an earlier shooting, for which Riley was later convicted; his prison sentence was “enhanced” because of his gang connection.
In the second case, police officers searched a regular flip phone belonging to a man named Brima Wurie, who’d been observed making a drug deal. Officers traced a number listed in Wurie’s phone as “my house” to an apartment complex, which they obtained a warrant to search, finding crack cocaine, weapons and cash.
Both plaintiffs argued that the warrantless phone searches violated their Fourth Amendment rights to be “secure in their persons, houses, papers or effects.” Legal precedent has granted police some leeway for searching an arrestee and the area within his reach, primarily to check for weapons and to keep evidence from being destroyed. But privacy advocates argued that because cellphones now contain vast troves of personal data—“well over a football field’s length of books” in some cases, according to one brief—searching them constitutes a breach of privacy serious enough to demand a warrant.
The Court concurred. “The sum of an individual’s private life can be reconstructed through a thousand photographs labeled with dates, locations, and descriptions; the same cannot be said of a photograph or two of loved ones tucked into a wallet,” Roberts wrote. “Indeed, a cell phone search would typically expose to the government far more than the most exhaustive search of a house.”