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Criminal Justice

Supreme Court Unanimously Rejects Warrantless Searches of Cell Phones

The Supreme Court ruled today that police need a warrant to search data on the cell phone of a person who has been arrested, extending the Fourth Amendment into the digital age.

Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Roberts explained that modern smart phones are different in kind from the simpler cell phones addressed by earlier cases. Modern cell phones “could just as easily be called cameras, video players, Rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps or newspapers,” he observed. And they are such a central part of daily life that the “proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy.”

The Court rejected the government’s argument that “a search of all data stored on a cell phone is ‘materially indistinguishable’ from searches” of wallet-sized photographs and other physical possessions found on an arrestee. It claimed that this argument “is like saying [that] a ride on horseback is materially indistinguishable from a flight to the moon.”

The Court’s opinion reflects an impressive grasp of new technology, and reveals a confident willingness on the part of the Justices to recognize technological nuances that can make a constitutional difference. For example, one argument in favor of allowing warrantless searches was that an arrestee might send a signal to remotely delete his phone over the Internet before a warrant could be obtained. But the Court observed that this risk could be addressed by the use of Faraday bags—simple, cheap devices that block radio signals—to prevent remote wiping caused by third parties or by “geofencing.”

Most importantly, the Court today recognized that technological advances require a judicial, doctrinal response in order to preserve the practical meaning of constitutional protections. As Roberts points out,

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.

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