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.
“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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