The Supreme Court Got One Right!

Not only did the Supreme Court get a ruling exactly right, it did so unanimously. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court handed down a ruling in Riley v United States that said police cannot search someone’s cell phone data during or after an arrest without a warrant.

The court has for decades loosened the requirements of the 4th Amendment and allowed the police to engage in searches of all manner during an arrest without a warrant. But the court correctly – and again, unanimously — that searching a cell phone is entirely different than searching, say, a vehicle or checking their pockets for drugs or weapons.

But a search of digital information on a cell phone does not further the government interests identified in Chimel, and implicates substantially greater individual privacy interests than a brief physical search…

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. 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. To the extent that a search of cell phone data might warn officers of an impending danger, e.g., that the arrestee’s confederates are headed to the scene, such a concern is better addressed through consideration of case-specific exceptions to the warrant requirement, such as exigent circumstances…

A conclusion that inspecting the contents of an arrestee’s pockets works no substantial additional intrusion on privacy beyond the arrest itself may make sense as applied to physical items, but more substantial privacy interests are at stake when digital data is involved.

Cell phones differ in both a quantitative and a qualitative sense from other objects that might be carried on an arrestee’s person. Notably, modern cell phones have an immense storage capacity. Before cell phones, a search of a person was limited by physical realities and generally constituted only a narrow intrusion on privacy. But cell phones can store millions of pages of text, thousands of pictures, or hundreds of videos. This has several interrelated privacy consequences. First, a cell phone collects in one place many distinct types of information that reveal much more in combination than any isolated record. Second, the phone’s capacity allows even just one type of information to convey far more than previously possible.Third, data on the phone can date back for years. In addition, an element of pervasiveness characterizes cell phones but not physical records. 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% of American adults who own cell phones keep on their person a digital record of nearly every aspect of their lives.

The scope of the privacy interests at stake is further complicated by the fact that the data viewed on many modern cell phones may in fact be stored on a remote server. Thus, a search may extend well beyond papers and effects in the physical proximity of an arrestee, a concern that the United States recognizes but cannot definitively foreclose…

It is true that this decision will have some impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime. But the Court’s holding is not that the information on a cell phone is immune from search; it is that a warrant is generally required before a search. The warrant requirement is an important component of the Court’s Fourth Amendment jurisprudence, and warrants may be obtained with increasing efficiency.

This is a great result. The 4th Amendment is slowly being adapted to modern technology. And as with the court’s previous ruling involving infrared sensors to find grow lights for drug operations, the 4th Amendment warrant requirement has correctly been applied to a situation where technology allows the government much easier access to information it could not otherwise get. Of course, they could always call the NSA and find out what’s on the phone, he says with a shudder…

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  • D. C. Sessions

    It’s worth reading the concluding concurrance as well.

  • http://adventuresinzymology.blogspot.com JJ831

    The scope of the privacy interests at stake is further complicated by the fact that the data viewed on many modern cell phones may in fact be stored on a remote server.

    Everything else valid aside – this above is a huge kicker. You have access to my phone, which is almost certainly already signed into my social platforms and email. You pop open facebook or gmail or whatever, and you are no longer searching information that’s on the device, you are now searching through data on a server that is somewhere far away (and pretty much that data is [i]owned[/i] by the the host).

  • Dweller in Darkness

    I need to check my copy of the Globe, but apparently the Mass. SWAT says that since they’re not technically a part of the police force, this ruling doesn’t apply to them. Which is special.

  • http://adventuresinzymology.blogspot.com JJ831

    Doh! Tag fail. Funny I use the proper html tag for blockquote, but then revert to square brackets.

  • eric

    @1 – I don’t find Alito’s example at all compelling. He seems to have missed the point entirely. Yes, it’s true that a person with an incriminating harcopy bill compared to a person with an electronic copy of the same bill will be treated differently. But this is not a “discrepancy” in law. It makes perfect sense given that it is impossible to separate electronic access to that bill from electronic access to every other record contained on the device, which is the privacy concern at issue here. With hardcopy, you get what’s in the car, which is a reasonably limited search. With electronic records, you get practically everything, which is not a reasonably limited search.

  • Mobius

    Kudos (for once) SCOTUS.

  • http://en.uncyclopedia.co/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    Of course, they could always call the NSA and find out what’s on the phone, he says with a shudder…

    Now you’re just being ridiculous. They don’t need to call the NSA. The NSA already knows. The NSA calls them. And the call is coming from inside the house.

  • David C Brayton

    Modusoperandi are often funny and trenchant. And today’s comment is one his very best.

  • logicgrrl

    SCOTUS is now 1-1. Unanimous on this vote…yay. Unanimous on their vote for the buffer zone for anti-choice protesters being unconstitutional…boo.

  • http://en.uncyclopedia.co/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    David C Brayton “Modusoperandi are often funny and trenchant. And today’s comment is one his very best.”

    True, but to be fair, each of my comments is one of my very best. Even the liner notes in my Christmas album, Modus’ Very Best for the Holidays.

     

    logicgrrl “SCOTUS is now 1-1. Unanimous on this vote…yay. Unanimous on their vote for the buffer zone for anti-choice protesters being unconstitutional…boo.”

    WRONG. IF THE SLUTS PROTECTED THEIR LADYPARTS WITH A BUFFER ZONE EARLIER THEY WOULDNT “NEED” A PROTECTIVE BUFFER ZONE LATER. THATS JUST COMMON SENSE.

    AND ALSO I MEANT JESUS AND THE HOLY SANCTITY OF HOLY MARRIAGE AS A BUFFER ZONE NOT CONTRACEPTION WHICH WE ARE NOW AGAINST AND WE ALWAYS WERE AGAINST.

  • D. C. Sessions

    Unanimous on their vote for the buffer zone for anti-choice protesters being unconstitutional…boo.

    There was also a welcome unanimous decision in a patent case ruling that just doing something that has been around forever but doing it with a computer (or in the expression around here, “… ON THE INTERNET!!!”) does not constitute a patentable invention.

    It may be crap public policy (and I agree it is) but as the saying goes, we have to create policy around the Constitution we have and not the Constitution we wish we had.

  • sanford

    As Linda Greenhouse in the New York Times said, the justices have cell phones too

  • birgerjohansson

    Obviously, the ruling proves that Ze Joos* have gotten to all the judges…..

    *or possibly the Illuminati.