Supreme Court of the United States

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that police cannot search a suspect’s smartphone without a warrant during an arrest, marking a major victory for privacy rights.

David G. Savage
June 25, 2014

The Supreme Court brought the constitutional right of personal privacy into the digital era Wednesday, ruling unanimously that police may not search a smartphone or similar device without a warrant from a judge.

The decision is the court’s most sweeping and surprising criminal law opinion in years, and it is likely to put a significant check on the government’s ability to routinely search other types of electronic devices, including laptops and tablets. Some parts of the opinion even cast doubt on the legality of the National Security Agency’s routine collection of millions of phone records.

“By recognizing that the digital revolution has transformed our expectations of privacy, today’s decision is itself revolutionary,” said Steven R. Shapiro, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union. “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.”

Two years ago, in the court’s first direct ruling on new types of electronic search devices, the justices unanimously banned the FBI from attaching a GPS device to a car to track the daily travels of a suspected drug dealer. But the justices were divided among themselves and did not issue a single clear opinion.

On Wednesday, however, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. spoke for a unified court and said that because digital devices have transformed how people live, they must also transform the law on privacy.

“Modern cellphones are not just another technological device,” he said. “With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans the ‘privacies of life.’”
Modern cellphones are not just another technological device. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans the ‘privacies of life.’ – Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.

“The term ‘cell phone’ is itself misleading shorthand; many of these devices are in fact minicomputers,” he continued. “They could just as easily be called cameras, video players, rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps or newspapers.”

Roberts said such devices can reveal “the sum of an individual’s private life [when] reconstructed through a thousand photographs labeled with dates, locations and descriptions.”

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