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Supreme Court rules warrants needed for cell phone searches

The Supreme Court issued a ruling on two cases declaring that law enforcement require a warrant before searching the contents of an individual's cell phone.
The Supreme Court issued a ruling on two cases declaring that law enforcement require a warrant before searching the contents of an individual's cell phone.
Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

As people use smartphones more than ever for day-to-day functions, the Supreme Court passed a ruling providing greater protections in the modern digital age.

The court ruled unanimously today that police officers must receive warrants before searching through the data on a person’s cell phone. Chief Justice John Roberts said in the court opinion that the Fourth Amendment prohibiting unreasonable search and seizure applies to cell phones with the exception of imminent danger to an officer. Police can still hold a person's cell phone in the event of an arrest, but law enforcement must go through proper channels and obtain a warrant before searching the contents of a cell phone.

The ruling today came in response to two cases brought before the court earlier this year. One case, Riley v. California, involved officers searching through the phone of David Riley, whom officers pulled over for an expired registration. The police discovered weapons in the car and, through a search of Riley's smartphone, also found evidence linking him to a shooting. In the second case, United States v. Wurie, police searched Brima Wurie’s flip phone, discovering evidence linking Wurie to drug and gun crimes. An appeals court in California upheld evidence in Riley’s case while a Massachusetts appeals court threw out evidence found on Wurie’s phone. Today’s ruling by the Supreme Court declared the evidence obtained in both cases from a cell phone without a warrant unconstitutional.

While officers can still physically inspect the phone of an arrested individual without a warrant, the data contained inside the phone is protected the same as any other personal information. Roberts acknowledged the ruling ties the hands of law enforcement.

"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. Privacy comes at a cost."

Even with the implications for law enforcement, Roberts also pointed out the importance of preserving Fourth Amendment rights for citizens; The chief justice said requiring warrants is an important function of the government. Roberts cited the fact that individuals use their cell phones in so many facets of everyday life like calling, texting, using the internet and managing many aspects 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,” Roberts 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.”