You Want to Search My Cell Phone? Get a Warrant!

Big news on the search and seizure front – the United States Supreme Court ruled today that cell phones may not be searched without a warrant.

The Supreme Court held that police generally may not search digital information on a cell phone of a person being arrested, unless they first obtain a search warrant. Here are just a few of my favorite quotes from the opinion:

“These cases require us to decide how the search incident to arrest doctrine applies to modern cell phones, 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 United States asserts that a search of all data stored on a cell phone is ‘materially indistinguishable’ from searches of these sorts of physical items…That is like saying a ride on horseback is materially indistinguishable from a flight to the moon.”

In response to the Government’s suggestion that police departments can institute protocols to guard against reading protected information stored on the Cloud but visible on the phone: “Probably a good idea, but the Founders did not fight a revolution to gain the right to government agency protocols.”

“We cannot deny that our decision today will have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime…Privacy comes at a cost.”

“Modern cell phones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans ‘the privacies of life.’”

The case stems from two trial level cases. In the first, the defendant was pulled over for traffic violations which led to the impounding of his car. An officer looked through a smart phone found during an inventory search of the car and noticed gang lingo. Once at the police station, a forensic expert looked more closely at the phone and found photographs and other damning evidence linking him to a shooting a few weeks earlier. He was charged based on that evidence, convicted, and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison – an enhanced sentence because of his gang relations that were also discovered on the phone.

In the second case, the defendant was arrested after police observed him participating in a suspected drug sale. The police searched his flip phone, traced a number that was repeatedly calling the phone, and got a search warrant to search the house the call was coming from.  There, they found drugs, guns, and cash, and the defendant was charged with drugs and firearms offenses.

Head on over to SCOTUS Blog for a full analysis of the decision and its implications. It’s clear that this decision could create suppression issues for many cases, allowing for dismissal of charges. Officers no longer have free reign to use the “search incident to arrest exception.” With all the private and protected information we keep on our phones, I’m just glad to see the Supreme Court is finally catching up to technology.

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