Supreme Court Bans Warrantless Cellphone Searches

By:  Joe Wolverton, II, J.D.
Supreme Court Bans Warrantless Cellphone Searches

On June 25, the Supreme Court banned warrantless searches of cellphone data.

Chalk one up for the Bill of Rights — for a change.

In a decision handed down Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled that police must obtain a search warrant before searching the contents of cellphones belonging to people being held in custody.

The ruling in Riley v. California and U.S. v. Wurie is being described as a “landmark decision” and one that makes future warrantless searches of cellphone data “unconstitutional.”

Writing for a unanimous bench, Chief Justice John Roberts identified several privacy concerns associated with the unwarranted search of cellphone data by law enforcement: 

First, a cell phone collects in one place many distinct types of information that reveal much more in combination than any isolated record. Second, the phone’s capacity allows even just one type of information to convey far more than previously possible. Third, data on the phone can date back for years. In addition, an element of pervasiveness characterizes cell phones but not physical records. A decade ago officers might have occasionally stumbled across a highly personal item such as a diary, but today many of the more than 90% of American adults who own cell phones keep on their person a digital record of nearly every aspect of their lives. 

Roberts recognizes, furthermore, that Wednesday’s ruling “will have some impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime. But the Court’s holding is not that the information on a cell phone is immune from search; it is that a warrant is generally required before a search.”

The effect of this decision on the Fourth Amendment is indisputable. If the Obama administration had received a favorable ruling from the Supreme Court, one holding that police do not need a specific — constitutionally qualifying — warrant to search a suspect’s cellphone, the threat to the Fourth Amendment and individual liberty would have been incalculable.

For example, a person arrested on a bench warrant for failing to appear for a hearing would have had his entire life subject to search and seizure if he were carrying his smartphone at the time he was taken into police custody. Then, the texts, social media posts, and photos stored on that phone would have come under the scrutiny of government and the data could be collected and saved in order to blackmail the citizen-turned-suspect. 

That, fortunately, is not the case.

Of specific interest in the Wurie case was the government’s claim that a cellphone is no different from any other items a suspect might be carrying that are subject to search by law enforcement, “including notebooks, calendars, and pagers.”

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