Fri, Jun 27, 2014 - Page 1 News List

US Supreme Court unanimously backs cellphone privacy

GET A WARRANT:In a sweeping victory for privacy rights, the court said police need warrants to search the cellphones of the people they arrest


A woman walks down the steps in front of the US Supreme Court in Washington on Wednesday after the court issued major rulings on cellphone privacy and copyright law.

Photo: AFP

The US Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that police officers usually need a warrant before they can search the cellphone of an arrested suspect, a major decision in favor of privacy rights at a time of increasing concern over government encroachment in digital communications.

In an opinion written by US Chief Justice John Roberts, the court said there are some emergency situations in which a warrant-less search would be permitted, but the unanimous 9-0 ruling goes against law enforcement agencies such as the US Department of Justice, which wanted more latitude to search without having a warrant.

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

He acknowledged the unique nature of cellphones in contemporary life, saying that “the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy.”

“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 [country’s] Founders fought. Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cellphone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple — get a warrant,” Roberts wrote.

The ruling could have a major impact in some jurisdictions because law enforcement agencies have increasingly made cellphones searches a top priority when a suspect is arrested, said Bronson James, a criminal defense attorney in Portland, Oregon.

The implications may be limited by police’s ability to obtain a warrant more quickly using mobile devices to send the request, but former federal prosecutor Robert Mintz said the ruling could hamper law enforcement when there is a need to gather information from a mobile device immediately because of an ongoing criminal enterprise.

The court was considering two separate cases pitting evolving expectations of privacy against the interests of the law enforcement community.

The defendants in the two cases, David Riley and Brima Wurie, were challenging their convictions by arguing that evidence found on their phones should not have been used at trial because the searches were conducted without court-issued warrants.

The legal question was whether the US Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, barring unreasonable searches, requires police following an arrest to get court approval before a cellphone can be searched.

Riley was convicted of three charges relating to a 2009 San Diego incident in which shots were fired at an occupied vehicle. Prosecutors linked him to the crime in part based on a photograph police found on his smartphone.

Police searched Wurie’s cellphone without a warrant after his 2007 arrest for suspected drug dealing. Officers used the device to find a phone number that took them to Wurie’s house in Boston, where drugs, a gun and cash were found.

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