Jose Luis Magana / AP

Supreme Court rules warrantless search of cellphones unconstitutional

Justices vote 9–0 that in most cases a police officer's right to search a suspect does not extend to cellphones

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 9–0 vote Wednesday that police officers must obtain a warrant before searching an arrested suspect's cellphone in most cases. 

The court did not say whether its decision extends to other digital data devices such as tablets.

In an opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the court said that the right of police to search suspects they arrest without a warrant does not cover — in most circumstances — data stored in cellphones. However, there could be some emergency situations in which a warrantless search of a device is permitted, the court added. 

“We cannot deny that our decision today will have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime,” Roberts wrote, adding that the right to privacy “comes with a cost.”

The cases that brought the issue to the Supreme Court were Riley v. California and U.S. v. Wurie. Both involved challenges to the search of an arrestee’s cellphone without a warrant. California and the federal government argued that cellphones should be fair game for search, just like a suspect’s wallet, according to SCOTUSblog.

Justice Elena Kagan, one of the most vocal opponents to such a rule, said that extending warrantless searches to cellphones would allow police who stop drivers for minor traffic violations to examine every email on suspects’ phones — including bank records, medical information and GPS data.

She added that “people carry their entire lives on cellphones,” SCOTUSblog reported.

Justice Antonin Scalia echoed Kagan’s sentiments, calling the warrantless search of cellphones for minor offenses “absurd.” Justice Anthony Kennedy agreed, but acknowledged that criminals often rely on cellphones to facilitate their crimes, the blog said.

The justices appeared split on the issue earlier on, as Wurie's ruling involved an older flip phone while Riley's involved the search of a smartphone — which can store far more data. The court decided the two cases together, finding that both searches were unconstitutional.

The justices ruled that warrantless searches of cellphones could violate the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which bars unreasonable searches and requires police after an arrest to obtain court approval before examining data on a suspect’s cellphone.

"By recognizing that the digital revolution has transformed our expectations of privacy, today’s decision is itself revolutionary and will help to protect the privacy rights of all Americans," American Civil Liberties Union national legal director Steven R. Shapiro said in a news release Wednesday.

"We have entered a new world but, as the court today recognized, our old values still apply and limit the government’s ability to rummage through the intimate details of our private lives," Shapiro said.

With wire services

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