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Supreme Court limits warrantless cellphone searches

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday that police need to obtain a warrant before searching a suspect’s cell phone, a sweeping endorsement of Americans’ right to digital privacy.

The decision applies to a pair of cases – one involving a Massachusetts drug dealer and the other a California gang member – that raised the question of whether police could access the contents of a cell phone in the same way they could search the trunk of a driver’s car following an arrest, or whether standards for cell phones should be different because of the troves of personal information they often contain.

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“Modern cell phones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans the privacies of life,” wrote Chief Justice John G. Roberts in the opinion. “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. Our answer to the question of what policy must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple – get a warrant.”

The court maintained that cell phones are much different than other objects a suspect may be carrying at the time of an arrest, because of their capacity to store millions of pages of text messages, thousands of pictures, and hundreds of videos that can date back years.

As such, warrantless searches may not be conducted even if it relates to the reason for the arrest, the court said.

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“This has several interrelated privacy consequences,” Roberts wrote. “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 percent of American adults who own cell phones keep on their person a digital record of nearly every aspect of their lives.”

Cell phones today are “now such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy,” Roberts wrote.

In 2007 police arrested Brima Wurie in a South Boston parking lot for allegedly selling crack cocaine from his car. Police were able to find where he lived following a search of his cellphone log. They were then able to find other evidence used to convict him of drug and gun crimes.

Wurie was sentenced to more than 21 years in prison. But a lower court last year threw out his conviction, ruling that the warrantless search of Wurie’s cell phone was illegal.

The California case, heard by the Court in April on the same day as the Massachusetts case, stemmed from an incident in 2009, when police stopped an alleged San Diego gang member who was driving a car with an expired registration. Police inspected his cellphone and discovered information that they said linked him to a murder.

The Fourth Amendment dictates that a warrant is typically required from a judge before police can conduct a search. The warrant must be based on “probable cause,” a reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed.

The justices acknowledged that their decision will impact the ability of law enforcement to combat crime, but their opinion emphasized that the warrant requirement is an important component of the Fourth Amendment and that warrants may be obtained with increasing efficiency.

“Privacy comes at a cost,” the opinion read. “Our cases have historically recognized that the warrant requirement is an ‘important working part of our machinery of government,’ not merely ‘an inconvenience to be somehow weighed against the claims of police efficiency.’’’

Officers, however, are still permitted to conduct warrantless searches in exceptional circumstances, such if a suspect is texting an accomplice who is believed about to detonate a bomb, or if a kidnapper may have information about a child’s whereabouts on his cell phone.

Related coverage:

Ideas: How privacy became an American value

Supreme Court appears hesitant on cellphone searches

Opinion: With cellphone ruling, a win for privacy

Mass. SJC rules warrants needed for data searches

Tracy Jan can be reached at tracy.jan@globe.com.
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