Supreme Court holds that privacy rights apply to cellphones, police need a warrant to search

In addition to its decision in the landmark Aereo case, the Supreme Court also handed down a ruling Wednesday in two cases that involved police searching the cellphones of alleged criminals. In a unanimous decision, the justices said that except in unusual circumstances, the information on a cellphone remains private and police have to get a warrant in order to access it. In effect, the judges said that a mobile device is subject to the same privacy protections as a person’s home.

The cases in question involved an alleged Boston crack dealer and a gang member from Los Angeles, and in both of these incidents the police used information they recovered from the suspect’s cellphone to connect them to criminal activity. In the California case, it was photos from the individual’s phone that tied him to a shooting by the Bloods gang, and in the Massachusetts case the police found a call log with cellphone numbers that tied him to a crime involving crack cocaine.

In their decision, the Supreme Court justices admitted that their ruling might make police work more difficult, but said that the right of privacy extends to the information that we carry with us on our mobile devices:

“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,’ (Boyd, supra, at 630). 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.”

Privacy rights take precedence

The law pertaining to police searches allows them to be done without a warrant where the area being searched is “within the arrestee’s immediate control” and where it is justified by the interests of officer safety or because it involves evidence that might be relevant to a case. Police forces have argued that phone calls, photos and videos fit the latter description, because they can help connect suspects to a crime — as they did in Boston and San Diego.

The Supreme Court ruled that while the information on them might be relevant, the privacy rights of the individual take precedence over the interests of police in finding evidence, since much of what might be found on a phone is personal information unrelated to the alleged crime:

“Cell phones differ in both a quantitative and a qualitative sense from other objects that might be carried on an arrestee’s person… before cell phones, a search of a person was limited by physical realities and generally constituted only a narrow intrusion on privacy. But cell phones can store millions of pages of text, thousands of pictures, or hundreds of videos. This has several interrelated privacy consequences. First, a cell phone collects in one place many distinct types of information that reveal much more in combination than any isolated record. Second, the phone’s capacity allows even just one type of information to convey far more than previously possible.”

Not just digital but also online data

In effect, the court said that the nature of the cellphone — the fact that it contains gigabytes of data about virtually all aspects of a user’s life and behavior — makes a distinction necessary between it and any other form of property that can be carried. Searching a suspect’s pockets makes sense when applied to most physical items, the judges said, but “more substantial privacy interests are at stake when digital data is involved.”

The judges added that a warrantless search of a cellphone is “further complicated by the fact that the data viewed on many modern cell phones may in fact be stored on a remote server. Thus, a search may extend well beyond papers and effects in the physical proximity of an arrestee.” The term cellphone is actually a “misleading shorthand,” the court said, since “many of these devices are in fact minicomputers.”

Steven Shapiro, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement that the court’s decision was “revolutionary” and would help to protect the privacy rights of Americans. “We have entered a new world but, as the court today recognised, our old values still apply and limit the government’s ability to rummage through the intimate details of our private lives,” he said.

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Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Thinkstock / BernardaSV