ILNews

'Get a warrant' to search cellphones, justices say

Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share

In an emphatic defense of privacy in the digital age, a unanimous Supreme Court of the United States ruled Wednesday that police generally may not search the cellphones of people they arrest without first getting search warrants.

Cellphones are unlike anything else police may find on someone they arrest, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court. They are "not just another technological convenience," he said, but ubiquitous, increasingly powerful computers that contain vast quantities of personal, sensitive information.

"With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans the privacies of life," Roberts declared. So the message to police about what they should do before rummaging through a cellphone's contents following an arrest is simple: "Get a warrant."

The chief justice acknowledged that barring searches would affect law enforcement, but he said: "Privacy comes at a cost."

By ruling as it did, the court chose not to extend earlier decisions from the 1970s— when cellphone technology was not yet available — that allow police to empty a suspect's pockets and examine whatever they find to ensure officers' safety and prevent the destruction of evidence.

The Obama administration and the state of California, defending cellphone searches, said the phones should have no greater protection from a search than anything else police find. But the defendants in the current cases, backed by civil libertarians, librarians and news media groups, argued that cellphones, especially smartphones, can store troves of sensitive personal information.

"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," said American Civil Liberties Union legal director Steven Shapiro.

Under the Constitution's Fourth Amendment, police generally need a warrant before they can conduct a search. The warrant itself must be based on "probable cause," evidence that a crime has been committed.

In the cases decided Wednesday, one defendant carried a smartphone, while the other carried an older flip phone. The police looked through both without first getting search warrants.

Roberts said there's no comparison between cellphones and packages of cigarettes and other items that were at issue in the earlier cases.

A ride on horseback and a flight to the moon both "are ways of getting from point A to point B, but little else justifies lumping them together," he said.

Authorities concerned about the destruction of evidence can take steps to prevent the remote erasure of a phone's contents or the activation of encryption, Roberts said. The police still may seize the cellphone and turn it off or remove its battery. If they think that turning it off could trigger encryption when the phone is turned back on, police can leave the phone on and place it in a special Faraday bag that isolates the phone from radio waves, he said.

One exception to the warrant requirement left open by the decision is a case in which officers reasonably fear for their safety or the lives of others.

Justice Samuel Alito joined in the judgment, but he wrote separately to say he would prefer that elected lawmakers, not judges, decide current matters of privacy protection. Elected officials "are in a better position than we are to assess and respond to the changes that have already occurred and those that almost certainly will take place in the future," Alito said.

The two cases arose after arrests in San Diego and Boston.

In San Diego, police found indications of gang membership when they looked through defendant David Leon Riley's Samsung smartphone. Prosecutors used video and photographs found on the smartphone to persuade a jury to convict Riley of attempted murder and other charges. California courts rejected Riley's efforts to throw out the evidence and upheld the convictions.

The court ordered the California Supreme Court to take a new look at Riley's case.

In Boston, a federal appeals court ruled that police must have a warrant before searching arrestees' cellphones.

Police arrested Brima Wurie on suspicion of selling crack cocaine, checked the call log on his flip phone and used that information to determine where he lived. When they searched Wurie's home and had a warrant, they found crack, marijuana, a gun and ammunition. The evidence was enough to produce a conviction and a prison term of more than 20 years.

The appeals court ruled for Wurie, but left in place a drug conviction for selling cocaine near a school that did not depend on the tainted evidence. That conviction also carried a 20-year sentence. The administration appealed the court ruling because it wanted to preserve the option of warrantless searches following arrest.

The justices upheld that ruling.

The decision will protect cellphones from warrantless searches going forward, but it may not be of much help to defendants in pending cases, or those whose convictions are final, said Gerry Morris of Austin, Texas, a vice president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Morris said that courts could allow evidence to be used from police searches of cellphones that were done in "good faith" and relied on the law as it stood when the searches were conducted.

What about other countries?

Canada's Supreme Court ruled last year, much as the U.S. justices did, that officers need a specific warrant to search a computer or a cellphone because the devices "give police access to an almost unlimited universe of information."

In Britain, however, warrantless searches of cellphones and other electronic devices are routine; London police stations are even equipped with special devices to suck data from the phones of arrestees as they're booked.

Wednesday's cases are Riley v. California, 13-132, and U.S. v. Wurie, 13-212.

ADVERTISEMENT

Post a comment to this story

COMMENTS POLICY
We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
 
You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
 
Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in Indiana Lawyer editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
 
No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
 
We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.
 

Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

Sponsored by
ADVERTISEMENT
Subscribe to Indiana Lawyer
  1. Ah ha, so the architect of the ISC Commission to advance racial preferences and gender warfare, a commission that has no place at the inn for any suffering religious discrimination, see details http://www.theindianalawyer.com/nominees-selected-for-us-attorney-in-indiana/PARAMS/article/44263 ..... this grand architect of that institutionalized 14th amendment violation just cannot bring himself to utter the word religious discrimination, now can he: "Shepard noted two questions rise immediately from the decision. The first is how will trial courts handle allegations of racism during jury deliberations? The second is does this exception apply only to race? Shepard believes the exception to Rule 606 could also be applied to sexual orientation and gender." Thus barks the Shepard: "Race, gender, sexual orientation". But not religion, oh no, not that. YET CONSIDER ... http://www.pewforum.org/topics/restrictions-on-religion/ Of course the old dog's inability to see this post modern phenomena, but to instead myopically focus on the sexual orientation issues, again betrays one of his pet protects, see here http://www.in.gov/judiciary/admin/files/fair-pubs-summit-agenda.pdf Does such preference also reveal the mind of an anti-religious bigot? There can be no doubt that those on the front lines of the orientation battle often believe religion their enemy. That certainly could explain why the ISC kicked me in the face and down the proverbial crevice when I documented religious discrimination in its antechambers in 2009 .... years before the current turnover began that ended with a whole new court (hallelujah!) in 2017. Details on the kick to my face here http://www.wnd.com/2011/08/329933/ Friends and countrymen, harbor no doubt about it .... anti-religious bias is strong with this old dog, it is. One can only wonder what Hoosier WW2 hero and great jurist Justice Alfred Pivarnik would have made of all of this? Take this comment home for us, Gary Welsh (RIP): http://advanceindiana.blogspot.com/2005/05/sex-lies-and-supreme-court-justices.html

  2. my sister hit a horse that ran in the highway the horse belonged to an amish man she is now in a nurseing home for life. The family the horse belonged to has paid some but more needs to be paid she also has kids still at home...can we sue in the state f Indiana

  3. Or does the study merely wish they fade away? “It just hasn’t risen substantially in decades,” Joan Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law told Law360. “What we should be looking for is progress, and that’s not what we’re seeing.” PROGRESS = less white males in leadership. Thus the heading and honest questions here ....

  4. One need not wonder why we are importing sex slaves into North America. Perhaps these hapless victims of human trafficking were being imported for a book of play with the Royal Order of Jesters? https://medium.com/@HeapingHelping/who-are-the-royal-order-of-jesters-55ffe6f6acea Indianapolis hosts these major pervs in a big way .... https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Royal-Order-of-Jesters-National-Office/163360597025389 I wonder what affect they exert on Hoosier politics? And its judiciary? A very interesting program on their history and preferences here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VtgBdUtw26c

  5. Joseph Buser, Montgomery County Chief Prosecutor, has been involved in both representing the State of Indiana as Prosecutor while filing as Representing Attorney on behalf of himself and the State of Indiana in Civil Proceedings for seized cash and merchandise using a Verified Complaint For Forfeiture of Motor Vehicle, Us Currency And Reimbursement Of Costs, as is evident in Montgomery County Circuit Court Case Number 54C01-1401-MI-000018, CCS below, seen before Judge Harry Siamas, and filed on 01/13/2014. Sheriff Mark Castille is also named. All three defendants named by summons have prior convictions under Mr. Buser, which as the Indiana Supreme Court, in the opinion of The Matter of Mark R. McKinney, No. 18S00-0905-DI-220, stated that McKinney created a conflict of interest by simultaneously prosecuting drug offender cases while pocketing assets seized from defendants in those cases. All moneys that come from forfeitures MUST go to the COMMON SCHOOL FUND.

ADVERTISEMENT