Thursday, April 2, 2020
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Cellphones shielded from warrantless search: SCOTUS

A unanimous ruling handed down on June 25 in the Supreme Court of the United States says police need warrants to search the cellphones of people they arrest, the New York Times reports.

Orin S Kerr, a law professor at George Washington University, was quoted as saying, “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.”

The decision came in two consolidated cases, Riley v California, Docket No 13-132, and US v Wurie, Docket No 13-212. Chief Justice John G Roberts, who wrote the Court’s opinion, said cellphones are “a pervasive and insistent part of daily life.” Implicit in the Fourth Amendment, he wrote, is a revulsion against general warrants.

Because of the wording, the ruling is likely apply to the broader category of tablets and laptop computers. It may, some people have suggested, even apply to searches of homes and businesses and of the information housed at third-party service providers, like phone companies. Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the Court:

The average smartphone user has installed 33 apps … which together can form a revealing montage of the user’s life.

[There are mobile applications for] Democratic Party news and Republican Party news … alcohol, drug and gambling addictions … sharing prayer requests … tracking pregnancy symptoms. [Records from those applications] may be accessible on the phone indefinitely. [And yet more information may be available through cloud computing.]

An Internet search and browsing history can be found on an Internet-enabled phone and could reveal an individual’s private interests or concerns—perhaps a search for certain symptoms of disease, coupled with frequent visits to WebMD. Data on a cellphone can also reveal where a person has been. Historic location information is a standard feature on many smartphones and can reconstruct someone’s specific movements down to the minute, not only around town but also within a particular building.

… 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.” 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.

We reverse the judgment of the California Court of Appeal in No. 13–132 and remand the case for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion. We affirm the judgment of the First Circuit in No. 13–212.

Could the Supreme Court, perhaps, have introduced some sanity into their treatment of personal privacy in a digital age?

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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