Supreme Court Tackles Cellphones and 4th Amendment Searches

Is a warrant required for police to search a suspect’s cellphone incident to arrest? Or does the vast and sensitive nature of information stored on personal phones require a different standard? The Supreme Court heard arguments this week to address those question. As reported in The Boston Globe:

At issue is the tension between privacy guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment and modern technology, in which cellphones contain troves of personal data.

“We’re living in a new world,” said Justice Anthony Kennedy. “Someone arrested for a minor crime has their whole existence exposed on this little device.”

The court was asked to address a series of new issues: Can police have access, without a warrant, to a suspect’s text messages, e-mails, photos, and other data on cellphones in the same way they can access a driver’s car trunk following arrest for a traffic offense? Or should the standards for cellphones be different because of the volume of information available?

Justice Antonin Scalia said that if a person is arrested for not wearing a seat belt, ‘‘it seems absurd that you should be able to search that person’s iPhone.’’

The main issue at hand is whether the longstanding rules are appropriate given advancements in technology.  Typically, police need a warrant based on “probable cause” that a crime has been committed before they can conduct a search. However, exceptions have been made for warrantless searches in certain situations in connection with an arrest. These exceptions were generally created to prevent the destruction of evidence or to look for concealed weapons. As reported in The New York Times:

The justices will have to decide how to apply an 18th-century phrase — the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition of “unreasonable searches and seizures” — to devices that can contain 100 times more information than is in the Library of Congress’s 72,000-page collection of James Madison’s papers.

The courts have long allowed warrantless searches in connection with arrests, saying they are justified by the need to protect police officers and to prevent the destruction of evidence. The Justice Department, in its Supreme Court briefs, said the old rule should apply to the new devices.

Others say there must be a different standard because of the sheer amount of data on and available through cellphones. In February, for instance, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals suppressed evidence found on the phone of a high school student who was arrested on charges of causing a disturbance on a school bus. “Searching a person’s cellphone,” the court said, “is like searching his home desk, computer, bank vault and medicine cabinet all at once.”

The court is expected to issue a ruling this summer.

For more information read the full articles in The Boston Globe and The New York Times.


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