A Big Win for Cell Phone Privacy

A Big Win for Cell Phone Privacy

A Big Win for Cell Phone Privacy

It's a scene we've watched play out hundreds of times on our favorite police drama: someone is arrested for a crime and is then searched. In fact, it's routine procedure in every police department in the country. And it's sensible too. Federal courts have always approved of it. For one thing, conducting an immediate, warrantless search protects police from harm that can be inflicted by any hidden weapons. It also insures that any evidence in the arrestee's possession can be secured and preserved.

But now let's add a modern twist. Suppose the arrestee has a cell phone. How far does this power to search go? Can the arresting officer rifle through the call log and the list of names and addresses in the contacts list? What about texts, e-mails and pictures?

These were the questions raised in Riley v. California, a case decided yesterday by the Supreme Court of the United States. There were actually two cases heard together, but the more interesting facts come from the Riley case itself. The defendant, Riley, was pulled over for driving with expired license tags. When running Riley's license, it was discovered that his license had been suspended. Riley's car was impounded and then searched, disclosing two handguns located under the hood of the car. Riley was arrested and a personal search was conducted. Police seized a cell phone and found incriminating pictures and videos that tied Riley to an earlier drive-by shooting.

It seems to me that a case like this would divide an already divided Supreme Court. Many cases these days are decided on razor-thin votes, with the justices splitting a long well-established ideological lines. But, surprisingly, the Court's decision in this case was unanimously in favor of privacy rights.

Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the Court, humorously acknowledged how commonplace cell phones have become: "[M]odern cell phones...are now such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy." Roberts also acknowledged that cell phones, especially "smart phones", place "vast quantities of personal information literally in the hands of individuals." Therefore, this case raised far more complicated issues than the run-of-mill search scenario.

459354553.jpgTwo rationales were offered in an effort to justify cell phone searches. First, it was argued that immediate, warrantless searches were necessary to protect arresting officers. The Chief Justice, however, required little effort to dismiss this argument: "Once an officer has secured a phone and eliminated any potential physical threats,...data on the phone can endanger no one." Second, it was argued that it was critical to search cell phones immediately to preserve the integrity of their data. But the Court rejected this argument too, finding that no real risk existed that cell phone data could be lost or corrupted before a proper search warrant could be obtained.

The Court spent a considerable amount of time discussing the privacy interests at stake. Cell phones contain vast quantities of private information including financial records, data disclosing our exact physical movements, and "apps" that can reveal intimate details of our interests, activities, and practically any other aspect of our lives. When weighed against the minimal interference with law enforcement, the Court was convinced that the individual's right of privacy should prevail. As the Chief Justice concluded:

"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 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 may do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple--get a warrant."

This case is a big win for privacy rights. No one would suggest that police could rummage through banker's boxes full of documents just because they were in the car when an arrest was made. Cell phones are no different. The fact that all of this data can now fit in the palm of your hand or your back pocket doesn't make it any less worthy of protection. I submit that the justices--conservative and liberal alike--lined up on the same side because protecting cell phone privacy is right as a matter of law and as a matter of common sense. The outcome of this case wasn't just a win for one man. It was a win for all of us.