Landmark Ruling Requires Police to Obtain Warrants Before Searching Mobile Phone Data

Video courtesy Bloomberg News

This week, the Supreme Court of the United States (“SCOTUS”) ruled in favor of privacy interests on a hotly debated and controversial subject regarding warrantless searches.

     . . . more substantial privacy interests are at stake when digital data is involved . . .

The issue: is a warrant required for law enforcement officials to search a cellular phone taken from a person incident to arrest?

The answer, as relayed by Chief Justice Roberts in the court’s Wednesday opinion, is a confident yes. Roberts & Co. unanimously delivered a well-deserved gift to privacy advocates by holding that the police generally may not, without a warrant, search digital information on a cell phone seized from an individual who has been arrested. In reaching this decision, Roberts opined:

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.

Many people throughout the country have expressed opinions that this ruling is of no surprise, and it does fit within the rights afforded to all U.S. citizens by the United States Constitution. Specifically, the Fourth Amendment of the Bill of Rights protects individuals from “unreasonable searches and seizures” without warrants based on probable cause.

Police have long been afforded the ability to conduct warrantless searches of a person incident to arrest; however, this has only ever been for the purpose of safety, and very few exigent circumstances to prevent destruction of evidence. The court, in its bold decision, notes that both of these considerations can be addressed without a warrantless search, citing that officers are still entitled to search the hardware of the phone to determine it does not present any danger, and that officers may power down, remove the battery, or place the phone in aluminum foil to prevent remote data wipes.

“We cannot deny that our decision today will have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime,” Roberts noted. “Privacy comes at a cost.”

The New York Times has an excellent breakdown of the noteworthy ruling, along with links to the full, unedited document.

Have your rights to privacy been violated? Have you been involved in an arrest where your cell phone, iPad, tablet or laptop have been searched without a warrant? Contact the Cybercrime defense lawyers at The Law Offices of Jonathan F. Marshall at 1 (800) 879-9087 for a free, no-obligation consultation.