Today the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that police can no longer search your cell phone without a search warrant or an immediate threat of danger. There are plenty of caveats, but overall this is a victory for privacy advocates. Below are some of the highlights from the decision.
SCOTUS points out that we've become so attached to our phones that if Martians landed on Earth they'd think that a smartphone was just part of the human body:
The Court's more conservative justices had to more or less admit that there wasn't much for a strict constructionist to go on in this case, since cell phone technology didn't exist in Thomas Jefferson's time:
Police can still search your phone as long as they get a warrant...
....and the Court recognized that getting a warrant is pretty easy these days, thanks to technological advances:
"There's an app for that" now exists as a phrase that's been written in a Supreme Court decision.
Police can't even just look at your recent calls without a warrant or some other immediate danger:
The U.S. tried to compare searching a suspect's zip-lock bag to searching a cell phone. The Court struck that argument down pretty humorously, arguing that this was like comparing a horseback ride and a trip to the moon.
It was argued that police should have the ability to immediately search your phone just in case it was remotely wiped. The court says that's not a good enough excuse and that there are ways to deal with this problem, such as putting the phone in a Farady bag:
And arguably the most important part of the decision: the court found that searching a cell phone in the 21st century was like searching someone's entire home and beyond:
Interestingly, this unanimous decision protecting cell phones from warrantless searches is by definition judicial activism. It reversed a lower court's decision and California even tried previously to pass a law that made warrantless cell phone searches illegal. That bill was first vetoed in 2011 by Governor Jerry Brown.
Today's decision is a mixed bag for privacy advocates in the real world. It recognizes that cell phones are not just a wallet or a glove compartment — our phones have the ability to store vast amounts of data, and connect to cloud services that provide even more. But how will this decision actually be applied on American streets?
The Court's decision concluded with crime drama lingo that seems to make it all so clear: get a warrant.
But getting a warrant is incredibly easy. And in a very practical sense, police will be able to search your phone even without a warrant if they insist that there is some imminent danger or potential crime that could be stopped. The court gave two hypothetical examples of this: "...texting an accomplice who, it is feared, is preparing to detonate a bomb, or a child abductor who may have information about the child's location on his cell phone."
It will be interesting to see how all this plays out in the real world, but at least SCOTUS recognizes the problem and there's now pro-privacy legal precedent for future cases to cite after privacy invasions by law enforcement.
America: The freest nation in the world, at least on paper.™
You can read the entire decision below.
Image via Associated Press: A Supreme Court visitor takes pictures with her cell phone outside the Supreme Court in Washington, Tuesday, April 29, 2014, during a hearing.