In a landmark decision, the US Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that police need a warrant if they want to search the mobile phones of the folks they arrest.
Chief Justice John Roberts, who penned the ruling, said the huge amount of data stored on phones means police cannot routinely inspect mobes as they would the contents of arrested people’s pockets and wallets.
“Modern cell phones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans 'the privacies of life',” he said.
The Supreme Court ruling comes after two defendants in two different cases argued that their convictions should be overturned because the evidence used to find them guilty was taken from mobiles they had on them.
When arresting folks, police are allowed a warrantless search of the person for safety reasons – i.e. searching for weapons – and to gather evidence that could be easily disposed of. The Justice Department said in a filing to the court that the same rules should apply to newer devices that people carry around.
But privacy advocates argue that mobiles can’t be seen in the same categories as wallets and address books because they contain photos, videos and social media as well as calls, texts and other personal information.
"Allowing police officers to search a person's cell phone without a warrant following an arrest would be a substantial infringement on privacy, is unnecessary, and unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment," the Electronic Privacy Information Centre said in its own appeal to the court.
Judge Roberts said that the old rules couldn’t apply to modern mobiles, because they were a technology whose scope was unheard of when the laws were put in place.
“These cases require us to decide how the search incident to arrest doctrine applies to modern cell phones, which are now such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy,” Roberts said.
“Cell phones place vast quantities of personal information literally in the hands of individuals. A search of the information on a cell phone bears little resemblance to the type of brief physical search [outlined by prior legislation].” ®