On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that police cannot search cell phones of arrested suspects. The decision was unanimous. The fact is, there is probably more information about a person’s life these days on their cell phone (comprised of text messages, emails, photos, personal accounts, medical records) than there is sitting around in their home.
The ruling upholds the Fourth Amendment as it states: “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. 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.”
We live in the digital age; this decision by the Supreme Court brings the Fourth Amendment into the 21st century.
The Court was weighing two separate cases at the time: Riley v. California and United States v. Wurie, where cell phones were searched and the defendants were found guilty of crimes which only came to light after police looked through their phones. The Supreme Court found that both searches were unconstitutional.
Chief Justice Roberts quoted a 1926 court ruling from Learned Hand, that it was “a totally different thing to search a man’s pockets and use against him what they contain, from ransacking his house for everything which may incriminate him.” Roberts and the Court found that cellphones fall into that second category.
Privacy comes at a cost. The Supreme Court added that its decision “will have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime.”
The court did note that there are some emergency situations that a warrantless search would be allowed.