Hold the Phone: Supreme Court Rules Warrant Required for Cell Search

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

In today’s digital age, it’s highly probable that there are more vital pieces of information and chunks of your life on your laptop or your smart phone than in your home. In a lot of ways, we live in our technology; we leave footsteps, relationships, interests, and timelines there. We’ve all heard someone say “my life is on that phone” or “my life is on that laptop.”

Wednesday saw the federal law catch up to this reality of modern life in a Supreme Court ruling which stated: “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.” While the case was specific to cell phone use, it is very likely that it applies to both laptops and tablets. The judgement was unanimous, with Justice Samuel Alito concurring in part and concurring in judgement, while others signed onto Justice John Roberts opinion.

The opinion listed previous background cases of note and relevance, pointing out that both phones discussed in the case — one a smart phone and one a flip phone — were relatively new technology in the grand scheme of things and “have been around for less than 15 years. Both phones are based on technology nearly inconceivable just a few decades ago,” it reads, noting that that is when other relevant cases were tried.  Now, as Roberts writes, “modern cell phones … [are] 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.”

While the opinion of the court reads in such a way as to quite likely affect a range of technology; the discussion of how and why cell phones are divergent in nature from other items on an arrested person — storage capacity and degree of privacy violated — casts a wider definition for that which is protected from search and seizure.

Where this may not extend is of particular note as well, especially in light of the federal privacy concerns that former contractor Edward Snowden ignited in the nation almost a year ago with NSA disclosures in part looking at phone data storage. “The scope of the privacy interests at stake is further complicated by the fact that the data viewed on many modern cell phones may in fact be stored on a remote server … a concern that the United States recognizes but cannot definitively foreclose”

On the one hand, the case serves to better protect citizen’s right to privacy and protection from invasive searches. On the other, it greatly decreases law enforcements ability to effectively and quickly investigate crimes, a disadvantage Roberts admitted, but countered by pointing to a “exigent circumstance” aspect of the Fourth Amendment, which would allow police to search sans a warrant if the public were placed in danger in an emergency or if evidence was transient and losable. He reminded the court that this change in technological capabilities has benefited law enforcement as much as it has benefited citizens. Specifically, he spoke of the ability of police to more quickly and easily get a warrant has changed with the times.

“Police officers can e-mail warrant requests to judges’ iPads [and] judges have signed such warrants and e-mailed them back to officers in less than 15 minutes,” writes Roberts. That said, other items could also be added to the list of unending technological advances made over recent years in law enforcement tools, facial recognition software, drones, etc.

For its part, the U.S. Justice Department says it will cooperate with police to put the ruling into practice, says DOJ spokeswoman Ellen Canale. “The department will work with its law-enforcement agencies to ensure full compliance with this decision. Our commitment to vigorously enforcing the criminal laws and protecting the public while respecting the privacy interests protected by the Fourth Amendment is unwavering,” said Canale, according to The Wall Street Journal.

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

This is a bold opinion,” Professor of Law Orin S. Kerr told The New York Times. “It is the first computer-search case, and it says we are in a new digital age. You can’t apply the old rules anymore.”

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