Supreme Court: Cops Can't Search Your Phone Without a Warrant

Turns out, SCOTUS doesn't like warrantless cell phone snooping. In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the police generally need a warrant before searching cell phones or mobile devices of the people they arrest.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote a strident ruling in favor of privacy.

"Modern cell phones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all that they may reveal, they hold for many Americans "the privacies of life," Boyd, supra, at 630. 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. Our answer to the question of what the police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple - get a warrant."

The court considered two cases about the legality of cell phone searches, Riley v. California and United States v. Wurie.

"These cases require us to decide how the search incident to arrest doctrine applies to modern cell phones, which are now such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy," Roberts wrote.

Before we all started toting around minicomputers full of our memories, emails, sexts, and secrets, police searches incident to arrest were limited by the stuff the arrestee had on their person. If they happened to be carrying around a letter from their co-conspirator or an incriminating photo, it was fair game. But the police couldn't rummage through their correspondences and photo albums at their home without a warrant. Since cell phones make it easy to store huge amounts of personal data and communications in someone's pocket, they've seriously changed how much information an arresting officer can find out with an initial search. This ruling acknowledges that searching the contents of a phone inside someone's pants is an entirely different thing than simply searching someone's pants.

While officers are still allowed to examine the outside of a phone to make sure it does not contain hidden weapons, the court emphasized that phone data could not be weaponized. It also dismissed the idea that remote wiping and post-arrest data encryption were problems common enough to justify warrantless search. "We have also been given little reason to believe that either problem is prevalent," Roberts wrote.

"We're very pleased with the decision, especially the bright line rule the court announced that says police can't search a cell phone incident to arrest, which gives the public and the police clear guidance," EFF staff attorney Hanni Fakhoury, who wrote an amicus brief for the case, told Gizmodo. "More importantly, the Court recognized the way technology's ability to collect and aggregate wide amounts of data triggers heightened privacy interests. That recognition will have important implications for future legal challenges concerning digital searches and surveillance, from cell phone tracking to NSA surveillance."

You can read the entire decision on the Supreme Court's website, or here:

SCOTUS Phone Search Ruling