Supreme Court limits police searches of cellphones

WASHINGTON —- Cellphones and smartphones generally cannot be searched by police without a warrant during arrests, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously Wednesday in a major victory for privacy rights.

Ruling on two cases from California and Massachusetts, the justices acknowledged both a right to privacy and a need to investigate crimes. But they came down squarely on the side of privacy rights.

“Modern cell phones, as a category, implicate privacy concerns far beyond those implicated by the search of a cigarette pack, a wallet or a purse,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court.

“We cannot deny that our decision today will have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime,” he said. “Privacy comes at a cost.”

Cellphone ruling may impact other privacy challenges

The justices struck down an extensive smartphone search in California that had been upheld by the state Court of Appeals, as well as a more limited probe of an old flip-top cellphone in Massachusetts that a federal judge had thrown out.

Currently, police can search a person under arrest and whatever physical items are within reach to find weapons and preserve evidence that might be destroyed. But the justices noted that vast amounts of sensitive data on modern smartphones raise privacy concerns that differentiate them from other items.

To liken physical objects to digital data, as federal and state government officials did in justifying cellphone searches, Roberts said, “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.”

Roberts said police still can examine “the physical aspects of a phone to ensure that it will not be used as a weapon.” But once secured, he said, “data on the phone can endanger no one” and the arrested person will not be able to “delete incriminating data.”

Justice Department spokeswoman Ellen Canale said prosecutors and police still will “make use of whatever technology is available to preserve evidence on cellphones while seeking a warrant…. Our commitment to vigorously enforcing the criminal laws and protecting the public while respecting the privacy interests protected by the Fourth Amendment is unwavering.”

In the past two years, the court has ruled that police can swab a suspect’s cheek for DNA to put into an unsolved crimes database, as well as conduct strip searches of prisoners without reasonable suspicion.

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