SEARCHES OF SMARTPHONES didn’t occur in 1791, when the Bill of Rights was ratified, so Supreme Court justices were on their own this year when asked to figure out how the devices fit into 18th-century constitutional protections. They decided, in a unanimous decision issued on Wednesday, that smartphones qualify as “papers, and effects.” That means that under the Fourth Amendment, police can’t search their contents without a warrant — even if the owner is under arrest.
It was an important ruling, and not just because it safeguards privacy. The opinion shows that the justices are willing to adapt to technological changes in the way Americans live, rather than sticking to rigid definitions that ignore social changes. The clear intent of the Fourth Amendment was to protect against unjustified government prying, not to protect “papers” per se.
Prior to the ruling, police had broad power to make searches “incident to arrest” — in other words, to look through someone’s pockets and open objects like cigarette packs. The government tried to argue that searching a smartphone was no different. Good for the justices for applying a common-sense understanding of the vast differences between a smartphone and a pack of cigarettes.