SCOTUS Protects Citizens’ Cell Phones from being Searched

A lawsuit, Riley v. California, that challenged that legality of arrest-related searches of cell phones had made its way to the US Supreme Court. The crux of the lawsuit was that law enforcement searches of cell phones without a warrant were a violation of the Fourth Amendment that protects citizens from unlawful search and seizure.

Attorneys for the Obama administration had argued that since police can look through a person’s wallet and see personal information such as driver’s license, photos, etc. that they also have the legal right to look through someone’s cell phone. They contended that there is no difference in privacy matters between the two types of searches.

In a unanimous 9-0 vote, the Supreme Court ruled that such arrest-related searches without a warrant were illegal. The ruling mandates that all law enforcement officers must first obtain a warrant before they even look at a person’s cell phone or tablet.

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In his 28 page decision, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote:

“Modern cell phones, as a category, implicate privacy concerns far beyond those implicated by the search of a cigarette pack, a wallet, or a purse. An Internet search and browsing history, for example, can be found on an Internet-enabled phone and could reveal an individual’s private interests or concerns — perhaps a search for certain symptoms of disease, coupled with frequent visits to WebMD.”

Marc Rotenberg, President and Executive Director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, DC, hailed the court’s decision, commenting:

“This is a remarkably strong affirmation of privacy rights in a digital age. The court found that digital data is different and that has constitutional significance, particularly in the realm of [the] Fourth Amendment…I think it also signals the end of the NSA program.”

A number of others are already seeing this decision as a boost to the challenge of the NSA program of data mining the phone calls, emails and internet use of American citizens. They are keying on the court’s comments about the quantity and scale of private information available on cell phones today.

Peter Swire is the Nancy J. and Lawrence P. Huang Professor in the Scheller College of Business at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He is also an expert on privacy laws and was named to the five member board known as the Director of National Intelligence Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies by president Obama in 2013. Swire made the following comments after the Supreme Court’s ruling:

“It’s very important that the court is recognizing that quantity matters. The court has said that quantity matters when it comes to the content of cell phones. And I believe the court will feel the same way when it comes to massive databases of telephone calls or computer communications.”

Alexander H. Southwell is the Co-Chair of the Information Technology and Data Privacy practice group that is part of the law firm of Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher in New York. He is also a former cybercrime prosecutor. Southwell’s comments on the new ruling were:

“The distinction here is more than just the capacity of the device to hold pictures. A cell phone is orders of magnitude different, not just in terms of numbers of items held but also in terms of the intrusiveness if searched. The mosaic of information available from seeing the whole of the data is transformative, just like the call records at issue in the NSA program.”

While not addressing the NSA’s warrantless metadata mining, the Court has implied that this too may be a serious violation of the Fourth Amendment. Roberts wrote:

“These cases do not implicate the question whether [sic] the collection or inspection of aggregated digital information amounts to a search under other circumstances.”

Guess we’ll have to wait to see what the Supreme Court says about the NSA’s illegal practice, but the stage has been set for them to curtail the government’s spying on our phone calls, emails and internet use. Whether that will stop them from doing it is another story.

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