• Supreme Court Rules Cell Phone Searches Violate Privacy Rights
  • July 31, 2014 | Authors: David C. Driscoll; Paul T. Stein
  • Law Firms: Stein Sperling Bennett De Jong Driscoll PC - Rockville Office ; Stein Sperling Bennett De Jong Driscoll PC - Annapolis Office
  • The United States Supreme Court ruled recently that cell phones including smartphones cannot generally be searched without a warrant on an arrest by police. The unanimous decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts resolves an issue which had divided lower courts since the advent of the digital age.

    The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution protects persons and their effects against unreasonable searches and seizures. The Supreme Court had previously recognized the reasonableness of searching upon arrest both the suspect and the area within his “immediate control” for weapons as well as evidence which could be concealed or destroyed.

    While the Court indicated that law enforcement officers may examine the physical aspects of a phone to determine that it cannot be used as a weapon, they may generally not search the data without a warrant.

    Rejecting the Government’s assertion that data searches are not materially different from searches of physical items, the Court noted that they are as distinguishable as a “ride on horseback” is from a “flight to the moon.” Noting the numerous functions and immense storage capacity of modern phones as well as worrisome additional issues such as “files stored in the cloud”, the Court stated that a cell phone search would typically expose more private information to the Government than the most exhaustive search of a house.

    The decision of the Supreme Court was not absolute. In “exigent circumstances” such as when immediate data review may prevent imminent harm to an individual or when evidence of imminent remote wiping exists, the Court observed that a data search without a warrant may yet be reasonable.