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Supreme Court protects our cellphones from warrantless searches

The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution protects Americans against “unreasonable search and seizure” by law enforcement. In most cases, this means that police cannot search us or our property without first obtaining a warrant.

That being said, not all searches are treated equally. Decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court have long held that we have the most expectation of privacy in our homes. Our vehicles are a slightly different matter and so is the question of whether trained dogs can be used in searches without a warrant. Like most Constitutional matters, the written text provides the framework. The interpretation is more nuanced and often must be decided by courts.

Late last month, however, the U.S. Supreme Court delivered a long-awaited ruling on Fourth Amendment protections as they apply to the cellphones of recently arrested individuals. In a rare unanimous ruling, the Court held that cellphones (including smartphones) cannot be searched without a warrant.

To better understand this decision, it helps to have some additional context. In the past, the Supreme Court has said that law enforcement officers can search arrestees without a warrant for two reasons: To protect their own safety (from hidden weapons, for instance) and to prevent the destruction of evidence an arrestee might be carrying.

But police cannot search the contents of an arrestee’s cellphone and then use whatever evidence may be found on it without first obtaining a warrant. The two cases that raised the question both involved defendants who were charged with crimes based on evidence obtained when police arrested them for other offenses and searched their cellphones without a warrant.

Approximately 90 percent of Americans own cellphones. Moreover, these devices hold a plethora of personal information about our lives and daily activities. In light of this, the importance of the Court’s decision cannot be overstated. Had the Supreme Court ruled that warrantless cellphone searches of arrestees are permissible, the future of American privacy rights would look very bleak.

Source: USA Today, "Supreme Court limits police searches of cellphones," Richard Wolf, June 26, 2014

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