It has been a good day for the digital privacy rights of Americans. Today, in a unanimous ruling, the Supreme Court ruled that police need a warrant to search cell phones. Recognizing just how much we all rely on our phones, Justice Roberts wrote that “modern cell phones…are now 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.” Our “[c]ell phones…place vast quantities of personal information literally in the hands of individuals” and therefore, “officers must generally secure a warrant before conducting such a search.”
The Court dismissed all of the arguments that were presented for justification of a warrantless search but did say that in “exigent” circumstances like prevention of a terrorist plot or finding a missing child, that police are able to proceed without a warrant. However, after such a warrantless seizure, a court would still have to “examine whether an emergency justified a warrantless search in each particular case.”
Justice Roberts must spend as much time on his Smartphone as the rest of us do, because he noted that “[t]he term “cell phone” is itself misleading shorthand; many of these devices are in fact minicomputers that also happen to have the capacity to be used as a telephone. They could just as easily be called cameras, video players, rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps, or newspapers.”Our constitutional rights are better protected when our highest court is in touch with the lives and realities of the average citizen.