Supreme Court Rules Police Need Warrants to Search Cellphones

Cellphones are now protected under the Fourth Amendment. The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that police cannot search cellphones and smartphones without first obtaining a search warrant, changing the current rule that police can search through any object on the person of someone under arrest.

The ruling drew a distinction between physical objects and digital data. Searching a cellphone is more like searching someone's home than it is searching someone's wallet. Even before the ruling, some law enforcement agencies had begun obtaining warrants to search the cellphones of people they had arrested, because any evidence obtained illegally would be thrown out.

The debate over cellphone searches weighs the individual's right to privacy against the importance of combatting crime. Privacy rights came out the winner in yesterday's ruling, but Justice Department Spokeswoman Ellen Canale said that law enforcement will "make use of whatever technology is available to preserve evidence on cellphones while seeking a warrant."

What is and what isn't protected under the Fourth Amendment has been hotly debated in recent years. Not long ago, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of letting police administer DNA cheek swabs of individuals suspected of crimes even before they were formally charged. The Supreme Court also ruled that police do not have to have reasonable suspicion to conduct strip searches of prisoners.

Privacy rights did, however, win out in the following Supreme Court rulings:

  • Police do need warrants if they want to attach tracking devices to a suspected criminal's vehicle.
  • Police do need warrants to take blood from a drunk driver that is refusing a breath test.
  • Police do need warrants to bring drug dogs to someone's home/dwelling.

An overwhelming majority of Americans have a smartphone or a cellphone. Smartphones in particular can hold extensive data about the owner's life. Cellphones have become such an extension of the person, that they are now protected under the Fourth Amendment.

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