I wrote on April 28th about the oral argument in the United States Supreme Court concerning a warrantless search of cell phones. Today, the court decides that people’s privacy interests in their cell phones are worthy of protection under the Fourth Amendment, unless the police obtain a warrant to search them.
The decisions came in two cases involving persons charged with drug charges or gang activity. Both were arrested by the police, and ultimately their phones were searched, which led in both cases to incriminating evidence used against them in their trials.
Historically, the police were allowed to search items found on persons who were arrested. The rationale for such searches was to prevent the police from being attacked by a weapon carried by an arrestee, and to prevent the arrested person from destroying evidence.
The court’s decision recognizes that cell phones are different. They are not usually weapons, and once in the police hands, a person cannot destroy what evidence they contain. With cell phones, we can carry around with us huge amounts of data that tell many things about our lives, so much that several large file cabinets might not be enough to contain it all. Access to that vast an amount of information requires a warrant.
The decision marks a victory for privacy advocates. However, in his concurrence, Justice Alito suggests that legislators could figure out ways around what he characterized as “the blunt instrument of the Fourth Amendment.” Thankfully, his views were not shared by the rest of the court, and the shield of the Fourth Amendment will continue to protect our privacy, at least for the time being.