Supreme Court bans warrantless smartphone searches

Michael DoyleMcClatchy Newspapers

A unanimous Supreme Court on Wednesday expanded privacy protections for the 21st century, ruling that police need a warrant before searching digital data on smartphones.

In an emphatic decision, the court said smartphones must be screened off from warrantless searches because of their vast information capacity. The ruling distinguishes smartphones and their ilk from objects like wallets and purses, which law enforcement routinely search.

“Cell phones differ in both a qualitative and quantitative sense from other objects that might be kept on an arrestee’s person,” Chief Justice John Roberts, Jr., wrote. “They could just as easily be called cameras, video players, rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, librararies, albums, televisions, maps, or newspapers.”

They are also nearly omnipresent, making the separate cases brought by David Riely and Brima Wurie among the most closely watched of the Supreme Court’s current term. An estimated 91 percent of U.S. adults now own a cellphone, and an estimated 61 percent of these are capacious smartphones such as Apple’s iPhone, Google’s Android and Samsung’s Instinct.

“A decade ago, police officers searching an arrestee might have occasionally stumbled across a highly personal item such as a diary,” Roberts noted. “Today, by contrast, it is no exaggeration to say that many of the...American adults who own a cell phone keep on their person a digital record of nearly every aspect of their lives, from the mundane to the intimate.”

Riley was pulled over by a San Diego police officer on Aug. 22, 2009, prosecutors and defense attorneys agree, but they characterize him very differently. Fisher called Riley a “college student.” California officials called him “a member of a San Diego Blood gang.”

Police impounded Riley’s Lexus for his driving with a suspended license, and in a subsequent search found two guns. A police officer then scrolled through Riley’s unlocked phone, finding video clips of gang initiation fights, pictures of gang signs and clips of a red Oldsmobile allegedly used in an earlier gang shooting.

Convicted on charges that included attempted murder, Riley was sentenced to prison for 15 years to life. Now 23, he is incarcerated at California’s Kern Valley State Prison.

The attorneys general of 14 states, including Idaho, South Carolina and Mississippi, supported California’s law enforcement argument.

“We cannot deny that our decision today will have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime,” Roberts wrote, while adding that “privacy comes at a cost.”

In Wurie’s case, Boston police lacked a warrant when they checked the call log on his gray Verizon LG phone after busting him on drug and gun charges. Wurie was convicted in 2009 and is serving a 262-month prison term at a federal facility in New Hampshire.

By Michael Doyle
McClatchy Washington Bureau