In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court has ruled that the police need to obtain a warrant to search cell phones in most cases. As Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, cell phones should be regarded as no different from an ordinary computer, since the only difference is that phone calls can be made on them.
Obtain A Warrant To Search Cell Phones?
“The term ‘cell phone’ is itself misleading shorthand; many of these devices are, in fact, minicomputers which also happen to have the capacity to be used as a telephone,” Roberts wrote. “They could just as easily be called cameras, video players, rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps, or newspapers.”
In short, cell phones should not be considered any differently from older technologies on which private information, as well as video and audio recordings, might be kept.
This ruling was made in relation to two separate cases on which the Supreme Court ruled. In San Diego, police had used pictures found on David Leon Riley’s smart phone and weapons found in his trunk to prove that he had been involved in local gang activity. In a Boston case, law enforcement found information on Brima Wurie’s phone which incriminated him in a case involving the selling of crack cocaine. Both cases involved the question of whether searching a cell phone for evidence after an arrest amounted to the same thing as asking a suspect to empty his pockets after his arrest.
The Supreme Court stated that the search of a cell phone should be considered the same as searching a house for records and other physical evidence. In most cases, cops would be required to obtain a warrant to search a house. A cell phone should be subject to the same high standards as searching a house for records because it contains many of the same private records that would have normally be kept beside a “land line” phone, in a photo album or in a drawer at home.
The Supreme Court did recognize exceptions that include cases in which lives may be in imminent danger or evidence may be destroyed while the cops wait for a warrant to come through. The court also did not rule out the consideration of other exigencies that may come up in the future. In a concurrent opinion, Justice Alito wrote that the question could be reconsidered if “either Congress or state legislatures, after assessing the legitimate needs of law enforcement and the privacy interests of cell phone owners, enact legislation that draws reasonable distinctions based on categories of information or perhaps other variables.”
The Fourth Amendment was written to ensure the right of individuals to be “secure in their persons, houses, papers or effects” and did not make exceptions for advances in technology that created new ways to store “papers” as electronic records. Electronic devices such as cell phones and iPads are simply another way to keep records and possess the capacity to take photos and arrange them into “albums”. Recent Wikileaks have revealed that the CIA does illegally use cell phones and other devices that can connect to a data network or the Internet to spy on their users. This is representative of the government’s default stance that new technologies like smart phones, the Internet, advanced cryptography and cryptocurrencies are not included in their users’ right to privacy because they can be used to enable criminal activity.
Some conservatives are still concerned that the vacancy created by Justice Scalia’s death has not yet been filled, thus creating an even split between Conservative and Liberal justices. Even so, Libertarian groups are pleased by the unanimous ruling on the grounds that the Bill of Rights was not written at a time when 21st century technologies such as cell phones existed. This ruling confirms that new technologies that have emerged since the start of the Digital Age are still subject to the same rules as a Rolodex, a file cabinet and a photo album as far as law enforcement authorities are concerned.
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