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Supreme Court Rules Police Need Warrant to Search Cellphones

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The Supreme Court ruled unanimously, Wednesday, that police do not have the constitutional authority to search peoples cellphones without first obtaining search warrants.

Cellphones are powerful devices unlike anything else police may find on someone they arrest, Chief Justice John Roberts said for the court. Because the phones contain so much information, police must get a warrant before looking through them, Roberts said. “Modern cellphones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans the privacies of life.”

The Obama administration and the state of California, who defended the fourth Amendment violating cellphone searches, said cellphones should have no greater protection from a search than anything else police find.

But the defendants in these cases, backed by civil libertarians, and news media groups, argued that cellphones, especially smartphones, are increasingly powerful computers that can store troves of sensitive personal information.

Roberts said the comparison to packages of cigarettes and other items that were at issue in earlier cases was not apt. Authorities concerned about the destruction of evidence can take steps to prevent the remote erasure of a phone’s contents or the activation of encryption, Roberts said.

One exception to the warrant requirement left open by the decision is a case in which officers reasonably fear for their safety or the lives of others.