Supreme Court to Cops: 'Get a Warrant' for Cell Phone Searches

A visitor to the Supreme Court uses his cellphone to take a photo on April 29 in Washington Photograph by AP Photo

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a decision with broad implications for digital privacy rights and police investigations, ruled today that police must generally get a warrant before searching the cells phones of people they arrest.

The court heard two cases related to warrantless searches of cell phones and how the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable search and seizure applies to new technologies.

In the first case, Riley v. California, David Riley was arrested in August 2009 after police found loaded firearms in his car during a traffic stop. Based on evidence collected from his cell phone, Riley was then charged in a shooting that had occurred a few weeks earlier. Riley argued, unsuccessfully in lower courts, that the search of his cell phone violated his Fourth Amendment rights and that all the evidence obtained from it should be thrown out.

In the second, United States v. Wurie, Boston police arrested Brima Wurie in 2007 for distributing crack. They then used call logs on his cell phone to find a residence where there were drugs, firearms, and ammunition. Wurie was found guilty of possession of narcotics with intent to distribute, distribution, and being a felon in possession of a firearm. The decision was vacated by a higher court on Fourth Amendment grounds.

The U.S. and California raised the specter that delays in searching cell phones could leave evidence vulnerable to remote wiping and encryption. The Supreme Court largely dismissed that concern and acknowledged what many of us certainly feel, that our cell phone is us and certainly not “just another technological convenience.”

“With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans ‘the privacies of Life,’” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the unanimous opinion. “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.”

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