SCOTUS rules warrants needed for cellphone search

Major ruling on cellphone privacy by the court June 25, 2014. |

All justices but one joined in the majority opinion. |

By JOSH GERSTEIN and TAL KOPAN | 6/25/14 10:33 AM EDT Updated: 6/25/14 12:30 PM EDT
The Supreme Court struck a major blow in favor of digital privacy Wednesday by ruling unanimously that police generally need a warrant before searching the cellphone or personal electronic device of a person arrested.

In a sweeping opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts resoundingly rejected arguments that searches of digital devices for information are comparable to searches law enforcement officers often conduct for contraband after making an arrest.

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“That is like saying a ride on horseback is materially indistinguishable from a flight to the moon. Both are ways of getting from point A to point B, but little else justifies lumping them together. Modern cell phones, as a category, implicate privacy concerns far beyond those implicated by the search of a cigarette pack, a wallet, or a purse,” Roberts wrote.

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The chief justice went even further, arguing that the privacy concerns at stake in the search of a phone are even more acute than those involved in the search of a home — the place traditionally considered most sacrosanct under American law.

“A cell phone search would typically expose to the government far more than the most exhaustive search of a house: A phone not only contains in digital form many sensitive records previously found in the home; it also contains a broad array of private information never found in a home in any form — unless the phone is,” Roberts wrote.

The court’s ruling was surprisingly broad in both its protection of privacy and in its savvy about the evolution of modern technology.

At oral arguments in the case, Roberts seemed surprised that an individual might have a legitimate reason to carry two cellphones. And Justice Antonin Scalia seemed to favor a result that would have allowed police to conduct a warrantless phone search for evidence of the crime a person was arrested for, but not other crimes. That distinction is considered and rejected in the majority opinion Scalia joined Wednesday.

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Roberts acknowledged that the court’s decision would make it harder for police to fight crime but said that fact did not justify excusing them from getting a warrant before conducting searches of cellphones and smartphones.

“We cannot deny that our decision today will have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime,” Roberts wrote for the court. “Cell phones have become important tools … among members of criminal enterprises and can provide valuable incriminating information about dangerous criminals. Privacy comes at a cost.”

All the justices except for Justice Samuel Alito joined Roberts’ majority opinion. Alito agreed with the court’s basic holding on warrants but said he’d give legislatures more leeway to set rules limiting the warrant requirement in certain circumstances.

The ruling in a pair of related cases is the latest effort of the highest court to grapple with the way advancing technology has outgrown the legal framework developed decades ago about what law enforcement is allowed to look at when arresting an individual.

The ruling gives guidance to law enforcement across the country, where federal and state courts have split on the question of whether a warrant is needed to look through a suspect’s cellphone at arrest, and how far they can go.

Privacy advocates have argued that with the vast amount of data stored on a device and in the cloud, the old court precedent built around searching an arrested man’s cigarette case shouldn’t apply. On the other hand, law enforcement has said that officers need to be able to search suspects both for safety and for the ability to preserve evidence, and cellphones or mobile devices are no different.

Roberts said the fact that data moves between the cloud and a smartphone without any action by the user and often without the user’s knowledge is all the more reason to insist on a warrant before allowing police to start rummaging through a device.

“Cell phone users often may not know whether particular information is stored on the device or in the cloud, and it generally makes little difference,” he wrote. “Moreover, the same type of data may be stored locally on the device for one user and in the cloud for another. … Officers searching a phone’s data would not typically know whether the information they are viewing was stored locally at the time of the arrest or has been pulled from the cloud.”

The court’s opinion explicitly leaves open the opportunity for police to search a cellphone without a warrant in “exigent circumstances,” such as a ticking-bomb scenario or when there’s reason to believe evidence is about to be destroyed.

In the first case, Riley v. California, a man was pulled over for expired tags and a search of his car revealed weapons. Police went through his phone at the scene and again later at the police station, finding media and messages that tied him to another crime and gang activity. Convicted, David Riley appealed to the California Court of Appeal, which upheld his conviction based on the evidence, which the judges said was constitutionally gathered. The Supreme Court took the case after the California Supreme Court rejected his appeal.

In the second case, United States v. Wurie, out of Massachusetts, Brima Wurie was arrested after an apparent drug deal. While he was in custody, police used a phone log entry for “my house” to go to Wurie’s residence and collect evidence that led to his conviction. Unlike in the Riley case, the 1st Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the verdict, ruling that the evidence collection was a violation of Fourth Amendment search and seizure protections and that a warrant is necessary to view any data on a suspect’s cellphone.

The lively oral arguments in the case in April exposed the court’s struggles in recent years to grapple with technology, as the distinguished justices discussed everything from Facebook to Fitbit and the implications of the integration of mobile devices into the average American’s life.

The court’s ruling was a defeat for the Obama administration, which supported law enforcement’s stance in the cases. Administration officials advanced the position that there was no fundamental difference between smartphones and other items a person could carry, such as a briefcase with personal documents or a billfold containing photos — a view the justices dismissed Wednesday as naively simplistic.

Jennifer Haberkorn contributed to this report.

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