The oft-divided United States Supreme Court got together for a rare occasion, and got it exactly right, in its unanimous decision that police cannot search the cellphone of someone they arrest without first obtaining a search warrant.
“The decision brings the Fourth Amendment into the digital age,” said Jeffrey Fisher, a Stanford law professor who argued on behalf of a defendant who said the search violated his constitutional right to be free of unreasonable searches, the Washington Post reported. “By recognizing that the digital revolution has transformed our expectations of privacy, today’s decision is itself revolutionary,” Steven R. Shapiro, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, told the L.A. Times. “We have entered a new world. But our old values still apply and limit the government’s ability to rummage through intimate details of our private lives.”
Police organizations argued that the change would make their jobs more difficult and Chief Justice John G. Roberts, who wrote the decision, did not disagree with that assessment. Roberts said he “cannot deny” that the decision will have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime, The Washington Post reported. “Privacy comes at a cost,” Roberts wrote.
On the other hand, obtaining a warrant is not much of a hardship for law enforcement, and upholding the Fourth Amendment shouldn’t be blamed for hindering law enforcement’s ability to “combat crime.”
The technology that makes a cellphone less of a phone and more of a computer holding all sorts of personal information, and therefore protected from search during an arrest, is also the technology that has made crime-fighting (and spying) easier: When legally warranted, warrants can be obtained to use GPS and other tracking devices on suspects’ cars; warrants can be obtained to bug homes, computers and smartphones, and all the other technological tricks available to both the good and bad guys. But as the good guys, police need to take that extra step to protect a citizen’s privacy. (Additionally, the nature of technology makes it difficult for a suspect to truly “delete” any information the police might be seeking before a warrant arrives.)
Sure, without the U.S. Constitution, crime-fighting would be incredibly “easy.” But we are not one of those countries. (Legal analysts say the ruling may also apply to some of the NSA’s phone-data gathering.)
With its ruling, the Supreme Court reassured citizens, and put law enforcement on notice, that new technology cannot be allowed to alter our historic commitment to the right of privacy, and the right to be free from unreasonable search and seizures.