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If you’re arrested, can police search through your cell phone without first obtaining a warrant?
Unfortunately, the law regarding cell phones searches has been unclear especially in the rise of smart phones.
The Supreme Court heard two cases today about whether the police need warrants to search detainee’s mobile phones. Both of these cases, Riley v. California and United States v. Wurie, involve suspects getting charged for additional crimes after the police found evidence on their cell phones after their arrest. The lower courts have been torn on the privacy issue.
This case should have huge implications as 12 million Americans are arrested every single year and most carry cell phones.
One side argues that cell phones, like wallets or purses, may be subject to search after an arrest. For better or for worse, the court has long upheld that police can search these personal items and anything "immediately associated" with the person involved without a warrant.
The other side, correctly, argues that police need to get a search warrant before searching someone’s cell phone. In today’s world, searching through someone’s phone can be as intrusive as searching through their home.
“A cell phone has the same contents that the home did in the founding era, it has digital equivalents of papers, letters, drawings, private financial documents, private medical documents,” said Jim Harper, an attorney with the libertarian Cato Institute. “It’s a digital incarnation of the contents of the home.”
This is particularly true of young people who seemingly keep their entire lives on their phones. I’d argue that cell phones are in a different category than wallets because it stores so much private and sensitive information about a person.
As the Electronic Frontier Foundation says, a cell phone search "would likely reveal an individual's medical history, religious beliefs, political affiliations, network of friends, colleagues, intimate associates and acquaintances.”
The way people many people use cell phones today is no different than a computer. If police have to get a warrant to search through someone’s computer, then yes, they need one to search through someone’s cell phone. This should be a no brainer.
A commonly asked question is, “how do we juggle civil liberties in a digital age?” I’d say that civil liberties should always be upheld, no matter what. We should all remain vigilant about our Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures.
This doesn't change simply because technology has progressed:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
Let's hope the Supreme Court makes the right call.