By Adam Serwer
06/25/14 10:24 AM
Police need a warrant to search the cell phone of a person who has been arrested, absent special circumstances, a unanimous Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.
“Modern cell phones are 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. “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.”
The high court took two cases involving cell phone searches, one involving a smartphone and the other involving a relatively basic flip phone. In both cases, police used information on each phone to connect the plaintiffs to crimes. San Diego Police used pictures in David Leon Riley’s smartphone, and the guns they found in his trunk after pulling him over for a traffic violation, to tie him to a local faction of the Bloods street gang and an earlier shooting. In Boston, Brima Wurie was arrested on suspicion of being involved in selling drugs and a picture linked to a phone call on his flip phone to a stash of crack cocaine.
The court held that the “exigent circumstances” exception to the warrant requirement also applied to cell phones – that is, imminent danger to life or the possibility that evidence would be destroyed might justify searching a phone without a warrant. Justice Samuel Alito, in a concurrence, opened the door to further exceptions. Alito wrote that he would “reconsider the question presented here if either Congress or state legislatures, after assessing the legitimate needs of law enforcement and the privacy interests of cell phone owners, enact legislation that draws reasonable distinctions based on categories of information or perhaps other variables.”