Supreme Court Says Cell Phone Searches Require Search Warrants

In a decision that backs up the idea that cell phones and smartphones deserve the same privacy protections from the government as other parts of our lives, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled police must obtain search warrants before looking through the contents of our iPhones. Previously, law enforcement agencies could look through text messages, email messages, photos and more on smartphones to collect evidence without using search warrants.

Supreme Court says police need warrants to search our mobile phonesSupreme Court says police need warrants to search our mobile phones

The ruling stemmed from two cases where suspects were charged with crimes after their phones were searched by police subsequent to being detained. In both cases, the suspects were ultimately convicted based in part on the warrantless searches.

The two incidents cited in the Supreme Court ruling happened in California and Massachusetts. In the California case, a man was stopped for expired license plates where his car then was subject to a routine search before impounding. During the search, police found his smartphone and searched its contents, too, only to find photos that tied him to gang activity and ultimately led to a conviction in a shooting. That conviction includes a 15 year to life sentence.

According to California, searching the suspect's phone without a warrant was perfectly acceptable because it was conducted after arrest.

Massachusetts took a different view on cell phone searches saying the Fourth Amendment protects them from unreasonable searches, just like our homes. In that case, police searched a suspect's smartphone, and used what they found to then search his home where guns and illegal drugs were discovered. That evidence, too, led to a conviction.

Both cases worked their way through the appeals process and eventually ended up in the Supreme Court where the panel of Judges decided that our cell phones and smartphones are far more than cigarette packs and glasses cases that can be searched after arrest for weapons and drugs.

Chief Justice John Roberts said,

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.

With that ruling in place, police must now obtain a search warrant if they want to dig through the contents of our smartphones, and because search warrants are intentionally limiting in scope, they will restrict exactly what police can look for.

This marks a big change for law enforcement procedures. Previously, it was standard practice -- and considered acceptable -- for police to perform warrantless searches on feature phones and smartphones when detaining suspects, subsequent to arrest, or even as part of a routine traffic stop. Judge Roberts drove home the importance of protecting mobile phone privacy saying, "modern cellphones, which are now such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy."

Smartphones have become so integral to our daily lives that protecting them from warrantless searches has become paramount to our personal privacy. Seeing the Supreme Court agree is a refreshing breath of air considering how much of our personal data is being collected without warrants by government agencies. This ruling won't stop the NSA from its massive data spying projects, but it will give us a reasonable level of protection from other government officials, and that's a start.

[Thanks to the New York Times for the heads up]