To the surprise of many, the U.S. ruled unanimously on June 25th that police generally must obtain a warrant before searching the cellphone of someone they arrest. As the Washington Post article noted, the court made a bold statement that the same concern about government prying that animated the nation’s birth applies to the abundance of digital information about an individual in the modern world.
Modern cellphones “hold for many Americans the privacies of life,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for a court united behind the opinion’s expansive language. “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.”
Roberts said that in most cases when police seize a cellphone from a suspect, the answer is simple: “Get a warrant.”
I love the simplicity of those three words, though by golly they were long enough in coming.
The ruling in Riley v. California has no impact on National Security Agency data-collection programs revealed in the past year or law enforcement use of aggregated digital information. But lawyers involved in those issues were quick to comment that the emphatic declarations indicated the justices’ interest in the dangers of government overreach.
It was interesting that Roberts’s opinion was filled with geeky facts such as “the average smart phone user has installed 33 apps, which together can form a revealing montage of the user’s life." There were also concerns about modern innovations such as cloud computing, noting that “cell phone users often may not know whether particular information is stored on the device or in the cloud.” No kidding.
Whether or not this was a long time coming, it is heartening to see all the Justices embrace the strong, far-reaching words of Justice Roberts protecting our Constitutional rights. Bravo!