US Supreme Court rules warrant needed for cellphone searches

Stan Ward

Stan Ward

June 27, 2014

Cellphones and search warrants have been very much in the news as of late and reported in this space. Most recently we have dedicated stories to the surreptitious use by police in the U.S. of a device known as a stingray which is a mobile cell tower affixed to a police vehicle and can secretly uncover the location of a person of interest by detecting the cellphone inside a building.

Since the police have been implementing their searches with impunity, without warrants and, subsequently, hiding the facts of the information gathering from judges, there has been an alarm raised about the unconstitutionality of using stingrays without search warrants.

In a strong defense of digital age privacy, a unanimous U. S. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that police may not generally search the cellphones of people they arrest without first getting search warrants. The unanimous verdict signaled a defeat for the Obama administration which has been under fire for its apparent u-turn on transparency and privacy issues.

The administration had argued that smartphones are fair game for search because they hold vast and personal stores of information. That rationale, though, was turned around and used by the majority in declaring the practice unconstitutional.

Cellphones are powerful devices unlike anything else police may find on a suspect said Chief Justice John Roberts for the court. “Modern cell phones are not just another technological convenience,” he opined. In fact, pointing to their ubiquity, he went on to say that the phones are so pervasive that “the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of the human anatomy.”

Because the phones contain so much information, police must get a warrant before looking through them, said Roberts. He left no doubt about the message as to what police must do before vacuuming a cellphone’s contents for information following an arrest. “Get a warrant”, declared the Chief Justice.

The Obama administration and the state of California had defended the cellphone searches maintaining that cellphones should have no greater protection from a search than anything else police find. But the defendants in these cases, backed by civil libertarians, librarians and new media groups, argued that cellphones, especially smartphones, are increasingly powerful computers that can store huge amounts of sensitive personal information.

The American Civil Liberties Union legal director, Stephen Shapiro, hailed the decision. He said, “By recognizing that the digital revolution has transformed our expectations of privacy, today’s decision is itself revolutionary and will help to protect the privacy rights of all Americans.” In the cases decided Wednesday, one defendant carried a smartphone, the other an older flip phone.

The two cases involved the aftermath of arrests in San Diego and Boston. In San Diego, police found indications of gang membership when they viewed the defendant’s (David Leon Riley) Samsung smartphone. Using video and photographs obtained from the smartphone, the prosecution persuaded a jury to convict Riley of attempted murder and other charges.

California appeals courts rejected Riley’s efforts to discard the evidence and upheld the convictions. In Boston, a federal appeals court ruled that police must have a warrant before searching a suspect’s cellphone. In that case police arrested Brima Wurie on suspicion of selling crack cocaine. They checked the call log on his flip phone to glean information as to where he lived. The Obama administration appealed the decision as it wanted to preserve the practice of warrantless searches following arrest. The Supreme Court, however, upheld the federal appeals court ruling.

The Supreme Court suggested that police could still advance without a warrant in extreme circumstances. Such an instance would be a suspect texting someone who might detonate a bomb. Or in the case of a kidnapper who might have information about the child’s location on his phone. Those special circumstances can be evaluated by a court after the fact, the Court opined.

In acknowledging that its decision could have an impact on police’s ability to fight crime, Roberts reminded police that warrants are an important facet of the judicial process. They are not an inconvenience to be employed at a time of their choosing.

The Supreme Court session is winding down for this year. It will be interesting to see if the subject of warrantless searches of cellphones involving stingrays wends its way to the high court in future sessions. But for now it is time to savor a victory for individual privacy in the form of SCOTUS recent rulings on cellphones.

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