In a major affirmation of privacy in the digital age, the US Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that police must obtain a warrant before searching digital information on a cell phone seized from an individual who has been arrested.
The 9-to-0 decision marks a Fourth Amendment landmark of profound importance given the ubiquity of cell phones, tablets, and portable computers in public places throughout society.
“Modern cell phones are not just another technological convenience,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court. “With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans the ‘privacies of life,’ " he said.
“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,” the chief justice said.
“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.”
In an indication of how fundamental these protections are in the justices' view, the chief justice likened warrantless searches of cell phones to the “general warrants” and “writs of assistance” imposed during colonial America that allowed British troops to “rummage through homes in an unrestrained search for evidence of criminal activity.”
“Opposition to such searches was in fact one of the driving forces behind the Revolution itself,” Chief Justice Roberts said.
In reaching its decision, the justices rejected arguments by the Obama administration and the California attorney general that law enforcement officials must be able to immediately search the contents of a cell phone or other electronic device when the device was found on a person at the time of his or her lawful arrest.
The justices also rejected a suggested fallback position to allow police to conduct a limited search of a cell phone without a warrant whenever it was reasonable to believe the device contained evidence of the crime that prompted the arrest of the individual.
Roberts said that fallback position provided no practical limit because it would still give “police officers unbridled discretion to rummage at will among a person’s private effects.”
Instead, the court established a bright line rule that if police seize a cell phone during an arrest they must seek approval from a neutral judge before searching the phone for any evidence of crime.
Steps can be taken to secure the data on the phone to prevent destruction of potential evidence, he said. And the warrant process is becoming more efficient.
“We cannot deny that our decision today will have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime,” Roberts said. “Cell phones have become important tools in facilitating coordination and communication among members of criminal enterprises, and can provide valuable incriminating information about dangerous criminals.”
But the chief justice added: “Privacy comes at a cost.”
Roberts said the court recognized that there might be instances when the government faces exigent circumstances that required swift and decisive action. In those cases, the courts have recognized an exception to the warrant requirement, an exception that must be later justified case by case to a judge.
The decision reflects a recognition by the high court of a growing threat to privacy in the digital age, with vast amounts of personal records, photos, video, and other intimate information readily accessible on smart phones and other electronic devices.
The government had argued that once an individual is placed under arrest, he or she has a diminished privacy interest and that diminished privacy protection does not extend to anything found in their pockets. Under this approach, searching the contents of a cell phone should be considered no different than searching inside a cigarette pack found in an arrestee’s pocket, the government argued.
“This is like saying a ride on horseback is materially indistinguishable from a flight to the moon,” Roberts said.
“Modern cell phones, as a category, implicate privacy concerns far beyond those implicated by the search of a cigarette pack, a wallet, or a purse,” he said.
Cell phones are different, he said. Even the term cell phone doesn’t accurately account for the full scope of their use.
“They could just as easily be called cameras, video players, rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps, or newspapers,” Roberts said.
“Most people cannot lug around every piece of mail they have received for the past several months, every picture they have taken, or every book or article they have read – nor would they have reason to attempt to do so,” he said.
He said to do so would require dragging a trunk around. The chief justice noted that under existing legal precedents, police would need a warrant to search such a trunk.
“Prior to the digital age, people did not typically carry a cache of sensitive personal information with them as they went about their day,” he said. “Now it is the person who is not carrying a cell phone, with all that it contains, who is the exception.”
Wednesday’s decision stems from two cases in which police used information discovered during warrantless searches of cell phones being carried by individuals at the time of their arrest.
The phones contained images and other information that police used as evidence of criminal activity or to identify other evidence of crime.
One case involved a suspected drug dealer in Boston named Brima Wurie. Police used his cell phone to identify Mr. Wurie’s home address. After obtaining a warrant they raided the home where they found drugs, cash, and a weapon.
Wurie was charged with possession with intent to distribute cocaine base, distributing cocaine base, and with being a felon in possession of a firearm.
Wurie’s lawyers filed a motion to suppress the evidence that resulted from the warrantless search of his cell phone.
A federal judge denied the motion. At trial, Wurie was convicted and sentenced to nearly 22 years in prison.
On appeal, the First US Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the trial judge, ruling that the police should have obtained a warrant before accessing the information in Wurie’s phone.
The other case involved a suspected criminal gang member in San Diego named David Riley.
Mr. Riley was pulled over in a traffic stop for driving with expired tags. After discovering that Riley’s license had been suspended, the officer impounded Riley’s car.
During a routine search of the car, police found two firearms under the car’s hood. Riley was arrested.
As he was taken into custody, police seized Riley’s smartphone. The arresting officer scrolled through the phone’s text files and noticed notations that suggested that Riley was a gang member.
Two hours later, at the police department, the phone was turned over to a detective who specialized in gang crime investigations. The detective examined the contents of the phone and discovered images that allegedly linked the suspect to an earlier gang-related shooting. Police also used photos and video images found on the phone to connect the suspect to other gang-related activities.
Riley was charged with shooting at an occupied vehicle, use of a semi-automatic firearm, and attempted murder. He was also charged with involvement in a gang-related crime.
His lawyer argued that evidence obtained without a warrant from Riley’s smartphone must be excluded from his trial. The judge rejected the motion, ruling that the action did not violate the Fourth Amendment.
Riley was convicted and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. The California Court of Appeal upheld the conviction, noting that the California Supreme Court in 2011 had issued an opinion that police may search a smartphone without a warrant whenever the phone is being carried by an individual at the time of arrest.
In its ruling on Wednesday, the Supreme Court reversed the California Court of Appeal and affirmed the decision of the First Circuit in Boston.
The cases were US v. Wurie (13-212) and Riley v. California (13-132).