The Supreme Court unanimously ruled Wednesday that police generally may not search mobile phones of arrested individuals without first obtaining a search warrant.
Chief Justice John Roberts delivered the opinion of the court. Roberts wrote that mobile phones are powerful tools that are able to store a “digital record of nearly every aspect” of people’s lives. Consequently, they are different from almost anything police find on a person upon arrest. A search of a person’s mobile phone is far more invasive to one’s privacy, Roberts said, than a search of the person’s wallet or purse.
“It is no exaggeration to say that many of the more than 90% of American adults who own a mobile phone keep on their person a digital record of nearly every aspect of their lives — from the mundane to the intimate,” Roberts wrote.
The term “mobile phone,” Roberts said, is misleading. They could just as well be called cameras, video players, rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps, or newspapers.
The high court did leave the door open to searches in “exigent” circumstances — Roberts cited examples of a suspect texting an accomplice who might be about to detonate a bomb or a suspected child abductor who may have information about the child’s location on his or her mobile phone.
SCOTUSblog called the decision a “sweeping endorsement of digital privacy.”
‘Ill suited to the digital age’
The ruling echoes the concurring opinion of Justice Sonia Sotomayor in the 2012 privacy case United States v. Jones, in which the nation’s highest court ruled unanimously that police placing a physical GPS device to track a criminal violated his Constitutional guarantee against unreasonable searches.
In that case, Sotomayor went out of her way to point out that the government doesn’t have to physically intrude on somebody’s property in order to violate Fourth Amendment rights. Consequently, she argues that the Feds don’t have the right to collect all of the data that citizens give to third parties.
“This approach is ill suited to the digital age, in which people reveal a great deal of information about themselves to third parties in the course of carrying out mundane tasks,” she wrote.
Sotomayor recognised that location tracking generates a precise record of a person’s public movements and reveals details about familial, political, professional, religious, and sexual associations. She notes that the government “can store such records and efficiently mine them for information years into the future.”
People may be afraid to exercise the rights of free speech and free associations guaranteed by the First Amendment since they know the government can freely collect personal information, she writes.
‘Get a warrant’
Roberts concluded his opinion by offering police a simple solution to searching a mobile phone after an arrest.
“Get a warrant,” Roberts wrote.
The unanimous decision on an issue with such a large scope was astounding for a court that has been divided in many of its biggest decisions over the past few years.
Roberts’ opinion portrayed a court that was united on the personal meaning of mobile phones to individuals, writing they “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.”
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