In Riley v California, a unanimous United States Supreme Court held that police must obtain a warrant to search the vast amount of information on someone’s cellphone, broadly protecting Americans’ privacy rights in the digital age.
Warrantless searches have been justified as to protect officer safety from hidden weapons or the destruction of evidence. The Court determined that neither reason applied to the digital information on a cellphone or other mobile devices. The Court stated that police officers could examine the physical aspects of a cellphone to ensure it will not be used as a weapon, but once that was done, the data on the telephone could not endanger anyone.
Chief Justice Roberts, who wrote the opinion for the Court, stressed that cellphones are different than other objects. A person’s entire life can be recreated from a cellphone making unfettered access to them without a warrant an illegal search and seizure.
The Court acknowledged that mobile devices are essential tools for criminals, but they are also essential tools for most Americans, that requiring police to get a warrant to search them could hinder investigations. Chief Justice Roberts wrote, “[b]ut individual rights sometimes outweigh the convenience of government” and further “privacy comes at a cost.”
The Court concluded its opinion with the following: “Our answer to the question of what police need to do before searching a cellphone seized incident to arrest is accordingly simple – get a warrant.”
Privacy advocates hailed the cellphone decision as a signal that the court would protect constitutional privacy interests from the vast powers of modern technology. Legal director of the ACLU stated, “[b]y recognizing that the digital revolution has transformed our expectations of privacy, today’s decision is itself revolutionary and will help to protect the privacy rights of all Americans.”
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