Today, the Supreme Court on Wednesday unanimously ruled that the police need warrants to search the cellphones of people they arrest.

This is a milestone ruling, as our laws have too often lagged behind advances in technology.

Celebrate today's win by downloading our privacy cellphone lock screen image. Click here to save.

We'll be posting our first impressions here and on our Facebook, and will have a full review of how this ruling impacts your life tomorrow. 

First Impression of the Ruling

  • This is a unanimous decision! That’s a powerful consensus from the highest court in the land about digital privacy at a time when our government and third party data collectors have strenuously argued that people have no right to privacy in their cellphones, laptops, tablets, social media or online activity.

  • This case answers the question: are the police allowed to search the digital contents on a cell phone they have seized from a person under arrest without first getting a warrant from a judge?

  • The Supreme Court’s resounding answer: NO. The police are prohibited from searching the digital contents of an arrested person’s cell phone unless they first go to a judge and prove that their request meets the full 4th Amendment standard of probable cause that justifies a warrant.

  • Are there legal loophole to the Court’s decision? Yes. The Court’s analysis rejected the government’s request for a “categorical rule” (aka a blanket rule) that would always exempt digital cell phone searches from the warrant requirement when a person is under arrest. The Court stated that the importance and prevalence of cell phones to daily life creates a strong privacy right in the digital contents of cell phones, and that the government’s interests in officer safety and preventing destruction of evidence could never outweigh the digital privacy rights every time someone is arrested – and therefore could not justify the creation of such a blanket rule.

  • The Court noted however, that the government is free to use case-by-case exemptions to the warrant requirement as they arise: “To the extent dangers to arresting officers may be implicated in a particular way in a particular case, they are better addressed through consideration of case-specific exceptions to the warrant requirement, such as the one for exigent circumstances.”

  • Furthermore, the police simply “could have seized and secured their cell phones to prevent destruction of evidence while seeking a warrant. That is a sensible concession. And once law enforcement officers have secured a cell phone, there is no longer any risk that the arrestee will be able to delete incriminating data from the phone.”

How does the Fourth Amendment work?

The Fourth Amendment protects people and their things from unreasonable searches and seizures by law enforcement.

Previous Supreme Court rulings have determined that a reasonable search requires a warrant issued by a judge after the police demonstrate that they have probable cause and describe the search area and their targets with particularity. Warrantless searches are unconstitutional – unless a specific exception applies, making the absence of a warrant reasonable.

When is it okay for police to conduct searches without a warrant?

One such specific exception is when a person is arrested (known as SITA: a search incident to arrest). SCOTUS has consistently given two reasons to justify the reasonableness of a warrantless search incident to arrest: officer safety and preventing the destruction of evidence.

Police are allowed to search the arrestee’s person and the area within his immediate control which may contain weapons or evidence (Chimel v. California)– even if the arresting officer doesn’t actually believe that the arrestee is armed or that evidence will be destroyed (United States v. Robinson).

By the way, “area within his immediate control” can include the passenger compartment of vehicles if a person is unsecured and within reaching distance. Police can also search the passenger compartment without a warrant if they reasonably believe they will find evidence relevant to the crime that the person was arrested for. (Arizona v. Gant)

In the decision today, SCOTUS was evaluating the reasonableness of a warrantless search of a cell phone incident to the lawful arrests of Riley and Wurie.

Important quotes from today's ruling:

  • How SCOTUS defines a smart phone: “a cell phone with a broad range of other functions based on advanced computing capability, large storage capacity, and Internet connectivity.”

  • SCOTUS says that modern cell phones “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.” That’s right – the U.S. Supreme Court thinks cell phones could be considered an extra human appendage (we're thinking the creepy next step in evolution?).

  • SCOTUS acknowledges the rapid pace of technology that is eclipsing/outpacing privacy law by leaps and bounds: “A smart phone of the sort taken from Riley was unheard of ten years ago; a significant majority of American adults now own such phones. Even less sophisticated phones like Wurie’s [flip phone], which have already faded in popularity since Wurie was arrested in 2007, have been around for less than 15 years. Both phones are based on technology nearly inconceivable just a few decades ago, when [earlier cases] were decided.”

  • SCOTUS says that while the categorical rule allowing warrantless searches incident to arrest in order to protect officer safety and prevent destruction of evidence “strikes the appropriate balance in the context of physical objects, neither of its rationales has much force with respect to digital content on cell phones….There are no comparable risks when the search is of digital data.”

  • SCOTUS says there is a difference between cell phones and all other physical objects. For instance, while an arrest usually diminishes any privacy interests in physical objects, “cell phones, however, place vast quantities of personal information literally in the hands of individuals. A search of the information on a cell phone bears little resemblance to the type of brief physical search considered in [non-cell phone cases].”

  • Also, SCOTUS notes that “unknown physical objects may always pose risks, no matter how slight, during the tense atmosphere of a custodial arrest…No such unknowns exist with respect to digital data. As the First Circuit explained, the officers who searched Wurie’s cell phone ‘knew exactly what they would find therein: data. They also knew that the data could not harm them.’”

  • SCOTUS says digital data is not a weapon: “Digital data stored on a cell phone cannot itself be used as a weapon to harm an arresting officer or to effectuate the arrestee’s escape.

  • Scary fact straight from SCOTUS’ mouth: “Indeed the label ‘exception’ is something of a misnomer in this context, as warrantless searches incident to arrest occur with far greater frequency than searches conducted pursuant to a warrant.”

In other words, courts have somehow become comfortable with a reality unimagined by our Constitution: the Founding Fathers wanted to ensure a status quo where police could not search people’s things without a warrant…what would they be thinking now to see even SCOTUS acknowledge that the opposite is true?

Read the Supreme Court's ruling here