This week in yet another landmark decision for the personal privacy of ordinary citizens in the United States, the Supreme Court voted to end warrantless searches and seizures of cellphones by a unanimous victory of 9-0.
“Modern cell phones are not just another technological convenience,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court. “With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans the ‘privacies of life”.
Justice Roberts was surprisingly straightforward on the issue, likening the practice of poring over innocent civilians’ mobile phones and tablets to colonial America, wherein British troops were allowed to to rummage through homes in an unrestrained search for evidence of criminal activity.
“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.
“Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple – get a warrant.”
The court openly balked at the arguments made by the Obama administration and California attorney general at law, who each presented their case on why law enforcement apparently “needs” the ability to go through people’s phones in order to achieve convictions that would hold up in a trial.
The court also rebuked attempts by both to implement a fallback stipulation, which would allow officers at the scene of a crime to perform a limited search of a device if the crime committed gave officers “reasonable belief” that the phone contained evidence which would help lead to an eventual prosecution.
The problem here of course is the loose language through which “reasonable belief” is defined, left purposely as ambiguous as possible to give beat cops as much justification as they need to bend the rules back to where they were before this decision was handed down.
One should be quick to note that this ruling does not pertain to cell phone data which has been acquired over the air, through backchannels such as the NSA dragnet programs or data requests sent to service providers through a signed FISA mandate.
Police will also still be allowed to seize a cell phone off a suspect once they are charged with a crime or placed under arrest, and will be free to rifle through its contents once the case has been seen and approved by a local district judge.
That said, no matter which way you spin it this ruling is a huge victory for privacy advocates nationwide. Because even though the Supreme Court may still be split down the middle on important issues like same sex marriage or gun control policy, they can all agree that the contents of someone’s digital life are sacred enough to be protected, and the law nor anyone else has the right to dig through it without getting proper permission first.
“Prior to the digital age, people did not typically carry a cache of sensitive personal information with them as they went about their day,” Roberts said. “Now it is the person who is not carrying a cell phone, with all that it contains, who is the exception.”