Putting cell phone searches on hold

Jun. 28, 2014 @ 07:30 PM

This editorial appeared in The Charlotte Observer.

Look at your cell phone for a moment. Think of all the ways you've interacted with it the past month. You've probably typed hundreds, if not thousands, of emails to friends, family, your coworkers and others. You've taken photos, read media, watched videos -- maybe even done banking or investing.

Now, take that one month and make it one year. There's a chance your phone holds as much critical information about you as your home does. On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court wisely acknowledged that digital reality in ruling unanimously that police need warrants to search the cell phones of people they arrest.

The decision involved two cases, including one -- Riley v. California -- in which petitioner David Riley was pulled over for a traffic violation in San Diego. When officers found loaded guns in Riley's car, they seized his cell phone and noticed repeated use of a term associated with a street gang. Later, a detective specializing in gangs found photos and videos on Riley's phone that linked him with a shooting. He was convicted of attempted murder.

The government argued that police have long searched property found on or near a person who is arrested, and that courts have allowed such searches under certain conditions, including when they are done in the interests of officer safety or to prevent evidence from being destroyed.

But the justices ruled that information on a cell phone is not something that can harm an arresting officer, and that law enforcement can prevent destruction of evidence by securing the cell phone as well as taking other measures to prevent remote wiping of data on the phone.

Also, the justices said, searching a cell phone is not like searching anything else in someone pockets. Phones not only contain several types of information about their owners, but that information can date back for years. "A decade ago, officers might have stumbled across a highly personal item such as a diary," wrote Chief Justice John Roberts, "but today many of the more than 90% of American adults who own cell phones keep on their person a digital record of nearly every aspect of their lives."

Simply put: The courts would not have allowed police to search Riley's home without a warrant after his traffic stop. A phone can offer the same, if not greater, breadth of information. If police want to access that information, the Court said, they can get a warrant.

For better and for worse, technology allows the private in our lives to become public. Our definition of what's personal is perpetually changing, but the judicial protection of privacy shouldn't. The court acknowledged Wednesday how much we've flung open the doors to our lives in this digital age, but it importantly reminded police that they can't just walk on in.