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US Supreme Court says police need a warrant to search a cell phone

So hands off those handsets
Thu Jun 26 2014, 09:43

THE UNITED STATES SUPREME COURT has ruled that searching an arrested person's mobile phone without a warrant is unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment of the Bill of Rights.

This means that the police will not automatically be able to search an arrested person's pocket pal, and this could also apply to other similar gear like tablets, laptops and smartwatches. The decision said that there is no inherent authority for police to interfere with a handset, unless it could be used as a weapon.

"Digital data stored on a cell phone cannot itself be used as a weapon to harm an arresting officer or to effectuate the arrestee's escape," said the court in its ruling (PDF).

"Officers may examine the phone's physical aspects to ensure that it will not be used as a weapon, but the data on the phone can endanger no one."

While the government argued that cell phone content might aid an investigation, the court suggested that this could come out during the case, and added that concerns about devices being wiped are a misnomer when the capability to restore wiped content is available.

Cellphones deserve some privacy considerations because of the amount of data that they can contain, according to the ruling, and the decision said that a phone can contain a whole history of contacts between parties - which is radically different to finding a piece of paper with a name on it in a pocket.

"A decade ago officers might have occasionally stumbled across a highly personal item such as a diary, but today many of the more than 90 percent of American adults who own cell phones keep on their person a digital record of nearly every aspect of their lives", the court added.

Chief Justice John Roberts Jr said that the arguments put forward by the government were not very compelling, adding that some of them were rather inappropriate.

"The United States asserts that a search of all data stored on a cell phone is 'materially indistinguishable' from searches of these sorts of physical items," he wrote.

"That is like saying a ride on horseback is materially indistinguishable from a flight to the moon. Both are ways of getting from point A to point B, but little else justifies lumping them together... 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 American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which filed an amicus brief in the case, welcomed the ruling. "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," said Steven Shapiro, the national legal director of the ACLU.

"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."

Of course, under the present system, phone calls are constantly monitored already. µ


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