WASHINGTON: The US Supreme Court ruled yesterday that police must obtain a warrant before searching the cellphone of a suspect, in a major civil liberties test in the smartphone age.
Mobile phones deserve the same protection against “unreasonable searches and seizures” as other personal property — for example homes — enshrined in the US constitution’s Fourth Amendment, the top US court said.
The court, in two cases involving criminal suspects whose mobile handsets were searched by police, weighed the interest of law enforcement in finding important evidence against the civil liberties guaranteed in the constitution.
Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the court, said that the principles of the US “Founding Fathers” still apply — despite the advent of 21st century technology. “Our cases have recognised that the Fourth Amendment was the founding generation’s response to the reviled ‘general warrants’ and ‘writs of assistance’ of the colonial era, which allowed British officers to rummage through homes in an unrestrained search for evidence of criminal activity,” Roberts wrote.
“Opposition to such searches was in fact one of the driving forces behind the Revolution itself.” Roberts said that people store vast amounts of personal data on their phones and that “the fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought”.
“Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple—get a warrant,” he wrote. The court said the few exceptions to these guidelines would be only “to protect officer safety or to preserve evidence.”
Roberts was joined by seven of the eight other justices, while Justice Samuel Alito wrote an opinion in support of the ruling but expressed reservations. Steven Shapiro at the American Civil Liberties Union hailed the decision as important for constitutional rights. “By recognising that the digital revolution has transformed our expectations of privacy, today’s decision is itself revolutionary and will help to protect the privacy rights of all Americans,” he said in a statement.
“We have entered a new world but, as the court today recognised, our old values still apply and limit the government’s ability to rummage through the intimate details of our private lives.”
Nuala O’Connor at the Centre for Democracy & Technology called the ruling “a tremendous victory for privacy rights”. “The court clearly recognises the impact that modern technology is having on our daily lives, and the importance of applying Fourth Amendment protections in a digital age,” she said.
Yousry Zakhary of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which joined other law enforcement groups in filing briefs supporting the police officers, said the ruling was “disappointing and will undoubtedly impact law enforcement’s ability to investigate and combat crime.”
The court consolidated two cases for the opinion in which lower courts reached different conclusions. AFP