Warrant required to search cellphones: USSC

In a ruling that will impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime, the United States Supreme Court ruled that a warrant is required to search the cellphones of the people they arrest.

“Police generally may not, without a warrant, search digital information on a cell phone seized from an individual who has been arrested”, the Court ruled and added 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.

The Court said a search of digital information on a cell phone does not further the government interests, and implicates substantially greater individual privacy interests than a brief physical search.

“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 Court reasoned.

The Court, however, mentioned that although the search incident to arrest excep­tion does not apply to cell phones, the continued availability of the ex­igent circumstances exception may give law enforcement a justifica­tion for a warrantless search in particular cases.

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