They made the right decision in ruling that the police need a warrant to search your cell phone or other electronic devices. Given the way the government (at all levels, from federal down to local) has been behaving lately, you’d think the Fourth Amendment had been repealed. In fact, it’s time for it to be strengthened. Using the War on Terror as an excuse to abridge our fundamental rights was merely giving a victory to the terrorists. A few savages with bombs can’t topple our country: only we can do that by sitting still as our rights as free people are eroded inch by inch.This is a small step in the right direction.
Writing for a nearly unanimous court Wednesday, Chief Justice John Roberts said searches of digital devices for information are not comparable to searches law enforcement officers often conduct for contraband after making an arrest.
He acknowledged that the court’s decision would make it harder for police to fight crime, but said that did not justify excusing them from getting a warrant before conducting searches of cellphones and smartphones.
“We cannot deny that our decision today will have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime,” Roberts wrote for the court. “Cell phones have become important tools … among members of criminal enterprises and can provide valuable incriminating information about dangerous criminals. Privacy comes at a cost.”
All the justices except for Justice Samuel Alito joined Roberts’s majority opinion. Alito agreed with the court’s basic holding but said he’d give legislatures more leeway to set rules limiting the warrant requirement in certain circumstances.
The lively oral arguments in the case exposed the court’s struggles in recent years to grapple with technology, as the respected justices discussed everything from Facebook to Fitbit and the implications of the integration of mobile devices into the average Americans’ life.
The most vocal defender of device privacy was Justice Elena Kagan, expressed concern that police could get into all the information on someone’s phone if they were arrested for something like driving without a seatbelt.
On the other hand, some of the court’s conservative justices, like Justice Antonin Scalia, were not as concerned about the search, though he suggested openness to limiting the evidence collected to the crime of the arrest.
One of the central questions to argument was how new devices relate to old-school items a person might be carrying at the time of arrest that could be searched. The Obama administration had supported the position that there was no fundamental difference between the two, as a person could carry a briefcase with personal documents, or photos in their billfold, the same as on a smartphone.
But the administration also supported some limits on the search, such as narrowing the scope to what could be evidence in the crime at hand, although it argued call logs could always be searched.