In a rare unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that police must obtain a warrant to search cellphones.
The court determined that police violated the Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable search and seizure of two men who were pulled over and their cellphones searched by police in two separate incidents.
“Our holding, of course, is not that the information on a cell phone is immune from search; it is instead that a warrant is generally required before such a search, even when a cell phone is seized incident to arrest,” reads the opinion from Chief Justice John Roberts.
In 2009, San Diego Police pulled David Riley over for having expired registration tags. During the stop, authorities founded loaded weapons in the car. They also searched Riley’s cellphone and found messages suggesting that he had gang affiliations.
Two hours after the arrest, a detective inspected Riley’s phone again and determined that the man had likely been involved in a shooting of a rival gang member. Riley was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.
The second case involved a man named Brima Wurie, who was arrested after being observed selling drugs. After being taken into custody, police looked through Wurie’s phone after it had received numerous phone calls. The authorities looked further and found a phone number labeled “my house.” They performed an online search for the phone number, which revealed Wurie’s address. Police went to the location, searched it, and uncovered a stash of drugs.
He was convicted of drug and weapons possession and sentenced to 262 months in prison.
But the court determined that police violated both men’s Fourth Amendment rights. Most justices joined Roberts’ opinion in full, with Justice Samuel Alito differing slightly on government discretion, but still concurring in the judgement.
“Modern cell phones are not just another technological convenience,” Roberts’ opinion continued. “With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans ‘the privacies of life.’”
“The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought,” the opinion continued.
“Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple — get a warrant.”