Editorial: High court delivers a big win for privacy
Privacy in the digital age just gained a much-needed Supreme Court victory that was punctuated by a strong, lucid decision penned by Chief Justice John Roberts.
On Wednesday, the court ruled unanimously that the police need a warrant to search cell phones belonging to people they arrest.
Writing for the court, Roberts acknowledged that the decision would affect the ability of law enforcement to combat crime but said privacy protection is of superior concern. While it may be true that an arrestee has “diminished privacy interests,” Roberts wrote, that doesn’t mean the Fourth Amendment is obliterated. He also rightfully made it clear that just because the police take somebody into custody, that doesn’t mean every search is justified or acceptable.
The court reached its decision after hearing arguments in two cases: Riley v. California and U.S. v. Wurie.
In the first case, David Riley was stopped for an expired registration. After learning that Riley was also driving with a suspended license, the vehicle was impounded and searched. Weapons were found in Riley’s car, so an officer searched him and seized a cell phone. The police then searched the phone to obtain data that linked Riley to a gang and a shooting.
In the second case, the police witnessed Brima Wurie selling drugs from a car. Wurie was arrested and two cell phones were confiscated. One of the phones provided officers with information that led them to Wurie’s apartment. A search warrant for the residence was obtained, and officers found drugs, weapons and cash.
In both cases, the police relied on a long-outdated interpretation of “reasonableness of a warrantless search incident to a lawful arrest.” Before the digital age, it was not unreasonable to go through everything an arrestee had on his person, such as a wallet, purse or cigarette box. It was, the court had decided in earlier cases, a narrow intrusion on privacy. Obviously, the same cannot be said of the contents of smart phones.
Although the Justice Department tried to make the case that information stored on a cell phone is “materially indistinguishable” from information contained in wallets and purses, the court was having none of it.
“That is like saying,” Roberts wrote, “a ride on horseback is materially indistinguishable from a flight to the moon.”
Roberts went on to stress what most of the world is already keenly aware of: Cell phones are, in fact, no longer phones at all but mini computers loaded with deeply personal information. He wrote about the vast storage capacity of the devices themselves and the significant added capacity provided by cloud computing. In short, Roberts and the court revealed just how antiquated the Justice Department’s view of the “search incident to arrest” exception has become.
There will undoubtedly be people who argue for hypothetical circumstances in which the warrant requirement could endanger lives – such as a terrorist preparing to detonate a bomb or a child abductor who may have information about the child’s whereabouts on his iPhone – but the court has an answer for that as well. Roberts wrote that, indeed, there will be cases where a warrantless search is justified, but it will be up to a court to decide whether that search was warranted under the circumstances. In other words, the police no longer possess power akin to the Colonial-era “writs of assistance” that allowed British officers to rummage through homes fishing for evidence of criminal behavior.
If the Founders were given a glimpse of the digital age, there is little doubt they would have applauded the court’s decision. As the Fourth Amendment makes clear, “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.” That right should not be sacrificed just because the contents of a lifetime can now be stored inside an object that fits in a pocket.