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Police Can't Search Cell Phones Without a Warrant: SCOTUS

Decision has far-reaching implications for civil rights across the country

- Sarah Lazare, staff writer

(Photo: Jason Kuffer / Flickr Creative Commons)In what is being heralded as a landmark ruling for civil rights, the United States Supreme Court decided Wednesday that police can not search the mobile phones of people under arrest without a warrant.

"The court recognized that the astounding amount of sensitive data stored on modern cell phones requires heightened privacy protection, and cannot be searched at a police officer's whim," said Hanni Fakhoury, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation—which filed amicus briefs in both of the cell phone search cases the court ruled on, in a statement released Wednesday.

"This should have implications for other forms of government electronic searches and surveillance," he added.

In a 1973 case, SCOTUS ruled that searches of a person under arrest do not require a warrant, on the grounds that a police officer's safety could be endangered.

Wednesday's 9-0 ruling determines that the 1973 decision does not apply to cell phones.

The court's opinion, penned by Chief Justice John Roberts, notes that modern cell phones "are not just another technological convenience" but rather, "can store millions of pages of text, thousands of pictures or hundreds of videos."

"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," states the opinion. "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.”

The court decision upends the previously-held status quo, in which police were allowed to search cell phones without a warrant where they deemed it relevant to the alleged crime the person was arrested for.

The court, however, ruled that a cell phone search can be conducted without a warrant in "exigent circumstances."

The ruling applied to two separate cases—US v. Wurie and Riley v. California—in which defendants argued that evidence seized from their cell phones during their arrests can not be used in court because the searches were warrant-less and therefore unlawful.

It amounts to a rejection of arguments from the Obama administration and California attorney general.

In a statement issued Wednesday, Steven R. Shapiro, the national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union—which filed the amicus brief on one of the cases, applauded the court's decision to "limit the government’s ability to rummage through the intimate details of our private lives.”

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