As Ilya noted earlier, the Supreme Court struck a blow for privacy and the Fourth Amendment today. It ruled that a warrant is generally required when law enforcement officers want to search a cell phone they have seized. Justice Roberts’ opinion for a unanimous court provides some crisp language:
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.” (citation omitted) 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 police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple—get a warrant.
In this case, we pretty well knew we were going to get a win. So let’s set aside the trumpets and talk about the margin of victory. Did we get improvements in Fourth Amendment doctrine that will bolster privacy protection in cases to come? Only a little.
OK, let’s trumpet the case a bit. This is a unanimous case with a bright-line rule. It’s about the best outcome you could hope for in Riley and Wurie themselves (argued separately, decided together), and it’s a great vindication of the constitutional status of cell phones and our data on them.
Chief Justice Roberts seems to have brought the Court together on this one (save a niggling Alito concurrence) to produce a strong opinion that doesn’t show gaps among the justices. (They may all have felt a need to huddle, avoiding an open fight or the tipping of hands on the NSA spying controversy, for example.)
And on the major privacy controversy of the day, the Court did not tip its hand. It distinguished Smith v. Maryland, the case the government uses to justify gathering records about every U.S. phone. Smith held that using a pen register to gather phone calling information was not a search. “There is no dispute here that the officers engaged in a search of Wurie’s cell phone,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote, punting for the Court in this case based on the consensus among parties.
The errant decision in Smith relied on the “reasonable expectation of privacy” test arising from the 1967 case, Katz v. United States. The very good news from this decision is that the Court once again declined to use the Katz test in resolving a Fourth Amendment issue, as our briefs invited the Court to do (or not to do, as it were). Instead, the Court implicitly found that there were searches in both cases and that those searches were of persons, houses, papers, or effects. Then it examined the reasonableness of searching cell phones.