updated 01:37 pm EDT, Wed June 25, 2014
Physical aspects can be examined, but 'data on the phone can endanger no one'
In a ruling from the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) this morning, judges declared unanimously that warrants are necessary to search cell phones. Previously when police arrested individuals, officers were allowed to seize items on the person or nearby as evidence. With the ruling, law enforcement can inspect the phone's exterior, but none of the information within it without obtaining a warrant.
The ruling comes as the court heard arguments on two cases in the United States where police used cell phones to gain evidence. In both cases, law enforcement used the information in the phones to lead to bigger arrests involving drugs and firearms. Tying the parties to selling drugs, felony possession and a drive-by shooting, the information obtained in the warrantless search of the cell phones was used in the conviction of two individuals. In the two cases, both were sentenced to more than 15 years in prison.
"We cannot deny that our decision today will have an impact on the ability of law enforcement to combat crime," wrote Chief Justice Roberts in the decision. "Cell phones have become important tools in facilitating coordination and communication among members of criminal enterprises, and can provide valuable incriminating information about dangerous criminals. Privacy comes at a cost."
Searching a confiscated phone will be limited to the physical characteristics to prove that there is no way for the device to be used in a harmful way. The SCOTUS said that obtaining the phone was reasonable not only to ensure there's no hidden weapon, but also criminals couldn't use the device or delete data. However, the court's stance on the data within is clear.
"Once an officer has secured a phone and eliminated any potential physical threats, however, data on the phone can endanger no one," said Roberts.
The courts approached concerns over remote wiping of phones once they have been obtained. Arguments stated that it would be possible for criminals to delete or remotely wipe a phone, however, the court states that police have the tools to combat the problem. Rather than needing to view the data right away, devices can be turned off or have the battery pulled. If there are encryption concerns, the device can be placed in a Faraday bag to block outside signals.
Even with the ruling, the SOTUS states that there are still some "exigent circumstances." Situations that require law enforcement to search a device, such as a bomb detonation or a child abductor, "may justify a warrantless search of cell phone data." However, courts will need to examine if an emergency justifies such a search in each case.
"Modern cell phones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans 'the privacies of life,'" the court said, quoting from a previous court case. "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. 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."
The ruling sets a landmark expectation for privacy, while dealing a blow to the government's stance on cell phone data.