If Police Want to Search Your Phone, They Need to "Get a Warrant": Supreme Court

The ruling, which is strong in its defense of Fourth Amendment rights in the digital space, is a landmark decision for the treatment and protection of individuals' data.

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Jun 25 2014, 3:40pm
Image: Ophelia Noor/Flickr

In a ruling anticipated for years, the Supreme Court unanimously agreed that police must have a warrant to search a person's cell phone. The ruling, which is strong in its defense of Fourth Amendment rights in the digital space, is a landmark decision for the treatment and protection of individuals' data.

"Modern cell phones are not just another technological convenience," reads Chief Justice John Roberts' opinion. "With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans 'the privacies of life.'"

"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," it continues. "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."

The Supreme Court heard arguments for a pair of cases, US v. Wurie and Riley v. California, which date back to 2007 and 2009, respectively. Both cases stem from police searching a suspect's cell phone following an arrest, and finding incriminating evidence—a caller ID linking a suspect to a stash house in Wurie, and evidence of a prior murder in Riley—that was later used in criminal proceedings.

"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."

The Wurie case is particularly fascinating because it hinged on a flip phone, and privacy advocates had previously been concerned that Supreme Court would rule on the case while ignoring the much larger privacy concern inherent to smartphones. (For more on each case, as well as the stakes at hand, see this story from January.)

Those concerns were assuaged today in a surprisingly firm opinion from Chief Justice Roberts, to which all eight fellow justices concurred. (Justice Alito "filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment.") Importantly, the justices made a distinction beyond that of a simple flip phone, and expounded on the massive hoard of personal data that smartphones shuttle around.

"Cell phones differ in both a quantitative and a qualitative sense from other objects that might be carried on an arrestee’s person," the ruling states. "Notably, modern cell phones have an immense storage capacity. 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."

The court listed out three key privacy concerns related to this:

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. Third, data on the phone can date back for years. In addition, an element of pervasiveness characterizes cell phones but not physical records.

That brings us to the kicker of that particular passage: "A decade ago officers might have occasionally stumbled across a highly personal item such as a diary, but today many of the more than 90% of American adults who own cell phones keep on their person a digital record of nearly every aspect of their lives," the court wrote.

In both cases, the government argued that the phone searches were legal because case law dating to the 70s, including US v. Robinson, established the right of officers to search people in custody for purposes of safety and simple jailhouse processing.

The ruling today rebukes that argument. "Digital data stored on a cell phone cannot itself be used as a weapon to harm an arresting officer or to effectuate the arrestee’s escape," it says. "Officers may examine the phone’s physical aspects to ensure that it will not be used as a weapon, but the data on the phone can endanger no one."

"A decade ago officers might have occasionally stumbled across a highly personal item such as a diary, but today many of the more than 90% of American adults who own cell phones keep on their person a digital record of nearly every aspect of their lives."

While the court did note that exigent circumstances could exist—such as an officer seeing a text about an immediate danger somewhere—the court wrote that such cases should be dealt with individually. 

In his opinion, Chief Justice Roberts was staunch in his defense of the Fourth Amendment, writing broadly that digital data has much larger, inherent privacy concerns than other objects we can carry on our person, and as such deserve heavier protection.

"The fact that an arrestee has diminished privacy interests does not mean that the Fourth Amendment falls out of the picture entirely," he wrote. "Not every search 'is acceptable solely because a person is in custody.'” 

Privacy advocates are cheering the decision, which is already being hailed as a forward-thinking and surprisingly strong ruling—at least in light of other recent cases—in defense of privacy.

Roberts in Riley: "Privacy comes at a cost." Then again, so too does surveillance.

— Amie Stepanovich (@astepanovich) June 25, 2014

#SCOTUS issues forceful defense of privacy in cellphone cases! The attorneys who argued Riley joined me to discuss: http://t.co/sX2IVA2K0P

— Jeffrey Rosen (@RosenJeffrey) June 25, 2014

SCOTUS rules against warrantless cellphone searches in 'sweeping endorsement of digital privacy' http://t.co/B8T2pouEdL

— ACLU of Northern CA (@ACLU_NorCal) June 25, 2014

The ruling comes at an interesting time for the Supreme Court, whose caseload has increasingly become focused on technology. While digital advocates are pretty unanimous in support of this decision, the court's other ruling released this morning—a sharp ruling against Aereo that has large ramifications for cloud computing—has not been as well received. It stands as a reminder that, as tech progress continues its endless acceleration, the nation's top court can't always keep up.