The U.S. Supreme Court on June 25 boldly struck a blow for Americans’ right to privacy by ruling that police officers, as a matter of routine, cannot examine a person’s mobile device without first obtaining a search warrant.
The high court’s opinion is a breath of fresh air at a time when it’s nearly impossible for Americans to keep up with news about who or what is snooping through their emails, which companies are tracking their buying habits and which social media apps are sharing users’ information with the government or corporations.
The court’s opinion also serves as a reminder of the importance of the country’s laws keeping pace with its ceaseless barrage of technological and digital advancements.
The U.S. Supreme Court justices, in a unanimous opinion, said that police almost always must obtain a warrant before searching cellphones or other mobile devices.
Exceptions would be “exigent circumstances,” such as imminent danger to life or the potential for evidence to be destroyed.
The question before the court was whether officers can fish a cellphone from the pocket of a person they’ve stopped and examine it “incident to arrest” in the same way officers might thumb through an address book or a wallet in the person’s pocket, or is searching a mobile device more like downloading the contents of a person’s home computer?
A police search of a home computer typically requires a warrant; thumbing through an address book in a suspect’s pocket typically does not.
But, as most people are well aware, mobile devices have become much more than just emergency phones and glorified address books. Cellphones contain photos, videos, music, call histories, voice mails, emails, text messages, appointment calendars, personal thoughts, banking transactions, medical information, navigation plans, jogging routes, food diaries, games, social media apps, geo-tracking “check in” apps, Internet browsing histories, books, podcasts, receipts, to-do lists and more.
To know what’s on your mobile device is to know you — where you go, when you go there, how you get there, what you do, who you do it with and evidence of you doing it.
No longer are cellphones a simple convenience for keeping in touch with on-the-go teenagers or calling a tow truck in an emergency.
Cellphones transmit and store a breathtaking amount of data and intimate details about an individual’s personal life and habits.
Documents, records and photographs that families once stored on bookshelves, in photo albums, in file cabinets and in junk drawers at their homes now instantly are available at their fingertips.
In a brief filed by the Center for Democracy and Technology, attorneys quantified what smart phones are capable of handling.
The version of the Apple iPhone 5 with the smallest storage capability of 16 gigabytes can store 800 million words of text — “well over a football field’s length of books or, to use another measure, 16 flat-bed truckloads of paper,” they said.
The same phone also can store more than 8,000 digital pictures, more than 260,000 voice mails or hundreds of home videos.
Remember, that’s the phone with the least amount of storage capability.
Chief Justice John Roberts said the quantity and quality of information that exists on modern mobile devices makes it constitutionally protected from police intrusion without a warrant.
“A cellphone search would typically expose to the government far more than the most exhaustive search of a house,” he wrote. “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.”
Law enforcement interests argued that cellphones are exempt from search warrants because police are allowed to search a suspect’s pockets for weapons that could pose an immediate safety risk or for evidence that could be destroyed.
It wasn’t enough of an argument to convince the justices, though. As Roberts correctly noted, “Privacy comes at a cost.”
He added: “Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cellphone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple — get a warrant.”
—GateHouse News Service