In a sweeping victory for privacy rights in the digital age, the Supreme Court on Wednesday unanimously ruled that the police need warrants to search the cellphones of people they arrest.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing for the court, was keenly alert to the central role that cellphones play in contemporary life. They are, he said, “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.” But he added that old principles required that their contents be protected from routine searches. One of the driving forces behind the American Revolution, Chief Justice Roberts wrote, was revulsion against “general warrants,” which “allowed British officers to rummage through homes in an unrestrained search for evidence of criminal activity.” “The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand,” the chief justice also wrote, “does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the founders fought.”
The courts have long allowed warrantless searches in connection with arrests, saying they are justified by the need to protect police officers and to prevent the destruction of evidence. But Chief Justice Roberts said neither justification made much sense in the context of cellphones. While the police may examine a cellphone to see if it contains, say, a razor blade, he wrote, “once an officer has secured a phone and eliminated any potential physical threats, however, data on the phone can endanger no one.” Should the police confront an authentic “now or never” situation, the chief justice wrote, they may well be entitled to search the phone under a separate strand of Fourth Amendment law, one concerning “exigent circumstances.” On the other side of the balance, Chief Justice Roberts said, is the data contained on typical cellphones. Ninety percent of Americans have them, he wrote, and they contain “a digital record of nearly every aspect of their lives — from the mundane to the intimate.” He wrote, “According to one poll, nearly three-quarters of smartphone users report being within five feet of their phones most of the time, with 12 percent admitting that they even use their phones in the shower.” Even the word cellphone is a misnomer, he said. “They could just as easily be called cameras, video players, Rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps or newspapers,” he wrote.