Supreme Court: Cell phones are protected from warrantless searches

The high court issues a decision on two cases related to police searches of mobile phones, calling modern cell phones "not just another technological convenience."

Ben Fox Rubin Former senior reporter
Ben Fox Rubin was a senior reporter for CNET News in Manhattan, reporting on Amazon, e-commerce and mobile payments. He previously worked as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and got his start at newspapers in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts.
Ben Fox Rubin
3 min read

United States Supreme Court. Getty Images

The US Supreme Court unanimously held Wednesday that cell phones are protected from warrantless searches, ruling on two cases in which police searches of mobile devices led to long prison sentences.

The decision provides a vindication for personal privacy and the Fourth Amendment's protections against unreasonable search at a time when so much of an individual's personal life is available on their mobile device.

In the court's opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote: "Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple--get a warrant."

The Supreme Court added that it "cannot deny" its decision "will have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime," answering to that: "Privacy comes at a cost."

The outcome of the two cases was first reported by SCOTUSblog. One of the cases, Riley v. California, involved David Leon Riley, a San Diego man arrested in 2009 and charged with having concealed weapons. After searching his phone, police found photos and call records that linked him to another alleged crime. He was later convicted of attempted murder and other charges, receiving a sentence of 15 years to life. The Supreme Court reversed a decision by the California Court of Appeals and sent the case back to that court for further proceedings.

The other case, the United States v. Wurie, involves Brima Wurie, a Boston man who was charged with drug crimes after police searched the call log of his flip phone. Wurie was sentenced to nearly 22 years in prison. The Supreme Court affirmed a lower court's ruling involving that case that would have allowed Wurie to suppress certain evidence.

"By recognizing that the digital revolution has transformed our expectations of privacy, today's decision is itself revolutionary and will help to protect the privacy rights of all Americans," said Steven R. Shapiro, the national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Many of the justices indicated during recent oral arguments there should be some safeguards against unrestricted, warrantless searches on cell phones. That viewpoint was clearly present in Wednesday's opinion, with repeated reference to the Fourth Amendment, which provides for "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable search and seizure."

The court made a distinction between cell phones and other items that someone may carry around with them, saying that today's mobile devices are "in fact minicomputers that have the capacity to be used as telephones." Additionally, the court noted that prior to the digital age people didn't often walk around with a cache of sensitive personal information, though today anyone not carrying around a cell phone is more of an exception.

"Modern cell phones are not just another technological convenience," the opinion stated. "With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans 'the privacies of life' ... The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought."