In a surprise decision Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that police officers must obtain a warrant before searching a suspect’s cellphone during an arrest.
The case, “Riley v. California,” had been in the court for several months. Before the decision, police could search anything on a person when making an arrest, but Chief Justice John Roberts argued the vast amount of sensitive information stored on a cell phone, particularly a smartphone, should be treated differently.
“Cellphones, however, place vast quantities of personal information literally in the hands of individuals,” said Roberts. “Officers must generally secure a warrant before conducting such a search.”
The unanimous vote was a big surprise, according to Mark W. Denniston, Weber State University professor of criminal justice. Denniston teaches classes on constitution rights, laws of evidence and criminal law.
“I think most court observers thought it would be a close decision, closely divided,” said Denniston. The unanimous decision Wednesday surprised him, as he mentioned the Obama administration said police didn’t need a warrant to search that data.
Most legal commentators consider this a landmark decision and some consider this “the court’s first real decision of the digital age,” according to Denniston.
“The court’s really starting to struggle with questions posed by digital privacy,” said Denniston. “They really hadn’t gotten involved in that yet.”
Roberts certainly confronted the reality of the digital age in his words on the case. “It is no exaggeration to say that many of the more than 90 percent of American adults who own a cellphone keep on their person a digital record of nearly every aspect of their lives—from the mundane to the intimate.”
Searching a cell phone, Roberts continued, could reveal more information about a person than police could get from searching their house.
Cases like this fall under the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which protects U.S. citizens from “unreasonable searches and seizures.” In other words, the police can’t just invade your privacy unless they have a good reason and get a warrant from an impartial judge giving them permission.
Tyler Yeaman, a WSU freshman in the athletic training program just had an inspection of his apartment in the University Village, so privacy issues hit home for him.
“I think a person’s business is his business,” said Yeaman. “For the most part I think you would need a warrant to search someone’s phone.”
WSU freshman Erick Mathews doesn’t have a problem with police searching information on cellphones. For him, it depends on the situation.
“If you just killed a man, or you’re trying to get away with doing so, and you have a cell phone that might be able to prove that, I would like them to be able to search a cell phone,” said Mathews.
Mathews also mentioned the time it would take to get a warrant could be enough time for a suspect to wipe the phone of any useful information.
Seth Cawley, a detective in the WSU police department, said they have measures in place to keep that from happening.
“They have what they call Faraday bags,” said Cawley. “It’s a bag lined with tinfoil that blocks any kind of signal being sent to that phone.”
He explained that police can use the bag to keep suspects from erasing data on the phone remotely during the wait for a warrant. Other methods such as removing an external battery can be used as well.
Even though the decision came only days ago, WSU police have already been getting warrants before they search phones, according to Cawley.
“We’ve always erred on the side of caution, and on the side of protecting an individual’s rights,” said Cawley.