The United States Supreme Court issued a ruling today which requires law enforcement officers to obtain a search warrant for most searches of a cell phone. While the Court left open the possibility of officers conducting a cell phone search during “exigent circumstances,” the ruling in Riley v. California means officers cannot casually peruse cell phones.
The ruling was unanimous, which is a bit of a surprise for me, but this is a pretty big victory for champions of privacy rights. Often the Court refuses to protect the rights of those accused of crimes, but cell phones have becomes so ubiquitous that the Court could not ignore that cell phones are now among our most personal possessions. “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,” the Court said.
Many phones now contain more personal information than anyone has in any one location, including our homes. As the Court said, cell phones are not just phones. “The term ‘cell phone’ is itself misleading shorthand; many of these devices are in fact minicomputers that also happen to have the capacity to be used as a telephone.”
This ruling does necessarily guarantee that police officers will never look through your phone, but it does make such evidence generally inadmissible during criminal court proceedings. Anyone who has been subjected to a cell phone search should contact a lawyer about various options.
You can read my previous posts on the subject of cell phone searches here and here.