Supreme Court Rules That Police Must Get a Warrant Prior to Searching Cell Phone

The United States Supreme Court unanimously ruled on June 25, 2014 that, pursuant to the 4th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, police must obtain a warrant to search a suspect’s cell phone. Chief Justice John Robert authored the opinion that shot down law enforcements arguments that searching a cell phone is no different than searching a cigarette pack or wallet during a normal arrest. Roberts and the eight other justices agreed that cell phones are different than normal pocket litter like a cigarette pack and implicate privacy concerns far greater. Cell phones hold “the privacies of life for many Americans” and are not just a tool to make calls anymore. Therefore, law enforcement across the country will have to get a warrant before searching a suspect’s phone.

Warrantless searches are still permitted under federal law and Washington law, but they are the exception to the general rule that searches and seizures require probable cause and a warrant issued by a neutral magistrate. Some of the common exceptions to the warrant requirement include a “search incident to arrest.” This type of search is where an officer can look through a suspects pockets and sometimes their bags after they have been arrested for a crime. In this case the Supreme Court is not striking down that exception, but drawing the line at further searching a cell phone on a person.

Law enforcement are concerned that obtaining a warrant will cause delays in the investigation data on a suspect’s phone may be erased remotely. The Supreme Court simply said that this is simply the cost of privacy in our country.

It will be interesting to see if this ruling will extend to the government’s warrantless surveillance and data collection on its own citizens. It seems that with such a bright line rule against searching the content of cell phones and granting privacy protection on its contents, the next step would require the government to get a warrant if it wants to collect and search that same content through the NSA data collection program.

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